In Acts 15:2, Paul and Barnabas have a “sharp dispute” with people who have come from Jerusalem to Antioch to urge Gentile converts to submit to circumcision in order to be saved. Why was circumcision such an important issue in Acts 15? Why does Paul think it is important enough to travel to Jerusalem and discuss the matter with Peter, James, and members of the Jerusalem community who were Pharisees (Acts 15:5)?
Circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. While the practice of circumcision itself is not unique to the Jews in the Ancient world, although some of the traditions based on the Hebrew Bible are specifically Jewish. Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant. For this reason the prophets told the people that they needed a “circumcised heart – clearly a metaphorical use of the idea of circumcision (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer 4:4; Ezek 44:7, 9).
There is strong evidence that during the intertestamental period and into the first century, at least part of the Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism. (See, for example, Lawrence Schiffman in Jewish and Christian Self-Definition Volume 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 115-156, especially 125-127. Schiffman discusses the Talmud (Yebamot 46) and the importance of the Izates story in Josephus Antiq. 20.2.4, see this post for more details on this story).
For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world. For the Gentile, circumcision was a strange mutilation of the flesh. Greco-Roman writers who comment on Judaism usually ridicule the practice. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of (naughty) humor in the Jewish practice (Epigrams 7.35.3-4; 7,82, 11.94).
Paul does not reject circumcision for Gentile converts for practical missionary concerns. Sometimes Paul’s Law-free Gospel for the Gentiles is described as a shrewd move on Paul’s part in order to make a Jewish religion more palatable to the Greco-Roman world. But Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in the first century. Shaye Cohen suggested several levels of attraction to Judaism, including simple admiration of Jewish life, benefaction towards Jewish synagogues, joining the Jewish community, and full conversion to Judaism (The Beginnings of Jewishness, 140-197; “Respect for Judaism by Gentiles according to Josephus,” HTR 80 (1987): 409-430). Michael Bird argued Second Temple period Jews successfully proselytized Gentiles, although Judaism was not a missionary religion (Crossing over Sea and Land, 149). If Gentiles were already attracted to Judaism and some did in fact fully convert, this may explain why Paul’s Gentile churches in Galatia were tempted to accept circumcision and other Torah practices as a part of their new faith in Jesus.
As an analogy, the evangelical Christian church has more or less accepted rock-styled praise bands as necessary to appeal to the modern world. Most churches have (rightly) rejected the idea that worship music must be played only on a proper pipe-organ. In most cases, this shift in worship style is motivated by a desire to stay contemporary for evangelistic reasons. This is how some see Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a entrance requirement into faith in Jesus. Richard Pervo, for example, suggested the implied reader of Acts believed Gentiles were eager to participate in the divine promises but found some practices of Judaism to be an obstacle. This is particularly true for circumcision, but Sabbath and food taboos were also considered odd in the Greco-Roman world. Pervo finds it difficult to imagine why Paul’s Gentile converts would have been receptive to Jewish practice in the light of the narrative of Acts, yet Galatians presupposes some Gentiles were tempted to fully convert to Judaism by submitting to circumcision (Pervo, Acts, 334).
Such a view makes light of the practice of circumcision in the first century. If this is the sign of Abraham’s covenant given by God, how can it be rejected as inconsequential? Paul does not merely call circumcision for Gentiles meaningless, he says it is dangerous. If one allows himself to be circumcised, he is in danger of nullifying the grace of God! (See Gal 1:6-9, for example.) Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision. Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism. Schnabel makes this point in Paul the Missionary in the context of the book of Galatians (126): “Paul insists that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews before they are accepted by God as followers of the Messiah” (emphasis added).
Perhaps my analogy to modern worship-practice is lame because music is not an essential part of the Gospel. Why is Paul so upset in Acts 15:1-2 at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision?
51 thoughts on “Acts 15 – Why is Circumcision So Important?”
My grandmother, a life long member of the Missouri Synod Flavor of Lutheranism, and I, have had a long standing discussion regarding the use of infant baptism as it pertains to the life and salvation of a Christian. Throughout my studies on the topic I came to an understanding that in some cases baptism is much like circumcision. A law added to the conversion process, some time years before the possibility of a conversion and acceptance of the Salvation of Christ. In the case of the Lutheran religion they hold the baptism, as an infant, as the proof of entrance into heaven. So said the Lutheran pastor who attended to my mothers funeral. “We can trust that she is in heaven because of her baptism” She was baptised at 8 days old, and I never heard her state, confess, or profess, Jesus Christ as Lord.
Baptism to me in some cases, has become like circumcision. A human “requirement” added to the salvation experience as a proof of conversion. I am confident that my grandmother is a “sister” in Christ because I believe she came to a place somewhere in her life where the Scandalon confronted her and she accepted the Gift of Christ. But my mother I am not so sure, and though I hope, part of me fully expects not to see her in eternity.
Do you think, then, that it is right of me to liken the human “Act” of baptism to the human “Act” of circumcision? That doing so, similarly risks the nulification of the Salvation experience?
“Baptism to me in some cases, has become like circumcision.” Yes, this is true. In fact, in some reformed traditions child baptism is a serious important practice since it make one part of then covenant, the way circumcision did at one time. I too have met people who had been baptized as an infant and assume they are saved, without ever making a real profession of faith in Jesus.
In my view, the reformation did not go far enough, since this is pretty much the same idea found in medieval Catholicism. Whatever baptism is, it cannot be considered an act which saves, justifies, gives grace, etc. I suspect Paul would write another Galatians to traditional denominations which demand Baptism for salvation.
I do not think that being baptized “nullifies” salvation, however. It might keep one from making a real profession of faith if they think participation in a ritual makes you saved. But if you have accepted Christ as savior, the ritual does not cancel out your salvation.
I really like the section of chapter 15 that discusses how a person is really saved. This is verses 6-11. Paul and Barnabas make the argument that it is only through the grace of Jesus that we are saved. I am not trying to make any other theological arguments here besides circumcision, but I can understand that this would be something difficult for the people of this time period to understand. As noted in the post, it would be like refusing to play anything but old hymns on the pipe organ. However I’m not putting down the law of circumcision, but it does need to be noted that it does not save you. Only Jesus saves.
Anthony, I think you brought of a great point, and a good debate. It is such an interesting topic to think about, whether the act of baptism is like circumcision. To me, with my previous studies and views on my faith I think that it is entirely possible for those two to almost be in the same category. Yes many others will disagree with me but I do not see why ether or should be necessary to understand and have a complete relationship with Jesus Christ. I agree with Paul when he says it is not something we must do anymore, because God payed the price and was the sacrifice so performing ether baptism or circumcision are up to the person it pertains to. For me, if I feel led to circumcise my son(s) later in life and my husband agrees with that choice then I see no harm in doing it, and vice-versa same with baptism. I will conclude my post with agreeing with Stephanie in saying only Jesus saves, I will add on to that with what we chose to honor him, will not make a difference in where my relationship is with Him, unless my heart is in the correct place.
I very much agree with where your headed in your post Kimmy.
To put circumcision and baptism in the same category is very much possible and may in fact be logical. The debate of whether baptism is meant for Christians today goes back to where a person stands with the dispensations and how far a person takes those dispensations into consideration for the Christian life today. But I do like what you said Kimmy, whether circumcision or baptism, neither one makes a person more “holy” or more “spiritual”. It’s a personal decision for each person (or their parent’s decision, in the case of circumcision). I feel like so many well meaning Christians use their personal baptism as a way of making themselves “feel” more spiritual, or they use it so that others perceive them as closer to God. The reality is that baptism is not about the person being baptized at all. It is about what Christ has done in that person’s life. Maybe circumcision isn’t about that person at all either. Maybe for some people it is about what they feel God leading them to choose for their child or they just feel it’s important. The reality is that neither one makes you a better person. It all goes back to the heart. Circumcision and baptism are not directly factors to where a person’s heart is at with God. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” God knows our motives and our heart and He is more concerned with our hearts and who or what we are loving our hearts with.
So to answer your question in the title P. Long, the physical act of circumcision isn’t that important. 🙂
In response to Anthony, I agree similarly with Kimmy and Stephenie. I think the act of circumcision and the act of baptism are completely different. Baptism is a symbolic act representing a burial into death (due to sin) and a resurrection into life with Christ. Baptism is also a message to the world that one is committing their life to Christ publicly. Circumcision represents an act of faith and obedience for the sake of faith in God’s command. If there is symbolism to Old Testament circumcision, I don’t want to know what it is. Furthermore, circumcision is not practiced publicly like baptism is (unless you’re Jewish). I don’t believe in infant baptism. I think baptism and circumcision are completely different faces of a vaguely similar coin, but I think that each are equally unnecessary ultimately for salvation based on the whole of the New Testament.
So good stuff here. I think a key concept to understand is what is your motivation for doing the activity. Paul states that if a gentile gets himself circumcised he is nullifying his salvation. Why? motives-if you think you have to be circumcised, you’ll get that done, and then go on to follow the rest of the Laws, never doing it out of worship to God but as a mandatory thing. Salvation is about repentance and a change of heart. People sometimes us Baptism as a way of to salvation, and again what is the motive. Is it done out of mandatory process, or is it done as a statement declaring that you are a Christian, and living for Christ and dying to your old lifestyle.
Anthony brings up a good point. i Can understand how Baptism could be seen as an act like circumcision. I attend a Church where infants are dedicated to the Lord per parents request, and adults are baptized as a profession of their walk with the Lord. I myself was baptized both as an infant, and again when i was in High School as an act of what i believe is out of obedience to God and to publicly profess my faith. Some may agree or disagree with that act and I don’t care. I did that because that was what i was brought up witnessing, and learning about. Now that i am a little more educated, i have different views of how Baptism should be looked at but that is a different topic. To me Circumcision comes off as a similar type of act.
I find it interesting how circumcision isn’t really looked upon as having any spiritual significance anymore. It’s a commonality for those not raised in the church to be circumcised, but there’s also a “contingency” of those who aren’t circumcised simply because their parents made that decision. Before the teaching of Paul circumcision was used as part of the Abrahamic covenant. We’ve talked in class how it was another way to show that the Jewish people were “set apart” from the rest of society and those outside of the covenant with God. I liked what Stefan said about the Gentiles who were in Christ getting circumcised after joining in a relationship with him. Paul is trying to tell them that there is no need for more grace and that the act of circumcision doesn’t bring that anyway. This act was something that God had set up as a covenant with the Israelite people. It was no longer relevant after the death of Christ, especially with the Gentile people.
Paul’s argument is, that circumcision is not a “road – block” issue when it comes to the Gospel. He realized that a Gospel with any added rules or regulations is not a Gospel at all and this is not when he wants. The act of circumcision was to physically separate the Jewish people and it was a sign of the covenant. Paul wants the people to see past the physical/legalistic religious rules and see the Gospel for what it is. In today’s culture there are many different “Circumcision” issues such as music like P. Long stated. People want to be able to control through rules and want to add their own things to the Gospel and salvation. Paul talking about circumcision here is also talking to us today when it comes to different issues that people add to the story of salvation. Churches legalistic views will only hinder the Body of Christ and drive people away.
I can see where the similarity can be found. I was raised with the idea that baptism was closer to the act of communion, something that is not required for salvation, but commanded for us to do. I agree with Cappon when he says it is more like a symbolic act that we use to declare to the world that we are changed. As I have grown up and developed my own ideas about it, I have never been Baptiste because I have never felt the conviction to. The people Paul preached to were not given a message of required baptism or circumcision for salvation, but they were given the message that Jesus had paid for their sins and if they believe they will be saved. Paul was not converting people to Judaism, he was converting them to the early church.
We would do well to keep in mind that Paul is demanding from the Jews a huge paradigm shift. As Jews, they were God’s chosen people. All over the Old testament we see God naming the Jews as His holy nation, set apart, a kingdom of priests. In a sense, they understand themselves to be the best. And now Paul comes preaching the Gospel of Jesus, which to many who accept Christ, this is all well and good. However, I understand that the challenge is the fact that Paul is now removing the title of “best” from the Jews and placing it on this new category of people who Paul now refers to as “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” (1 Peter 2) in which a person’s ethnicity and works are insufficient. So it seems that the Pharisees that follow the Gospel of Jesus are in a sense saying to Paul, “We can accept this Jesus as the Messiah and His sacrifice, resurrection, and righteousness, but don’t tell us that we are now equal with everyone else.” It is this classic and innate pride with which all men must wrestle if Christ is going to be supreme in our lives.
P. Long, I like that you pointed out that Paul says that by being circumcised you are in danger of nullifying the grace of God. I like what Stefan said about it being about the attitude in which you do it. Which I think is along the same lines as baptism, which has been brought up a lot in this post. If someone gets baptized because they think they can use it as a ticket out of hell, does it have the same meaning as someone who is doing it to profess their faith in Christ? Nope. It’s all about the heart. When I read the comment about being in danger of nullifying the grace of God, I thought about the book of Hebrews. Jewish Christians who believed Christ was who he claimed to be started going back to the Jewish customs, and putting so much value in that. In doing that, you are saying that you aren’t 100% sure that Christ was who he says he is. They were thinking, maybe we should do this just in case.
Wow. I love what Porter said about baptism and communion. These two acts are much more closely related than baptism and circumcision. The only thing I can think of that baptism and circumcision have in common is that they have both been misused and misunderstood to be requirements for eternal salvation at various points throughout history, including today. Baptism and communion, however, are very similar in that they are both acts commanded to be perpetuated by Jesus himself (target audience open for debate), and they are both primarily if not exclusively exercised by Christians. I do not know if some Jews still practice baptism for all the same reasons as they did back then, but other than that, I don’t imagine anyone else spends time dunking in water for any reason other than hygiene.
I really like what all is being discussed here. I find it quite interesting that “circumcision” is thought of as having absolutely no spiritual significance anymore. I think it is fairly logical to place circumcision and baptism in the same boat. Both are indeed rituals but neither one make you more spiritual than the one who did not take part in it. Like Chrissy said, it is a personal decision that one makes but in the case of circumcision, it is the parent’s decision. I do not see either one of these rituals as a nullification for salvation. In Ephesians 2:8 the Apostle Paul writes “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. The only way are saved here is by having a true proclamation with your heart that Jesus Christ is Lord and that he was sent down to earth to bear the guilt and shame. In Galatians 2:16, Paul says ” know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. We are again justified freely by his grace and not by our works
I didn’t read all of the responses her, but for whatever reason I paused my scrolling to read one response. I simply want to suggest to Cappon that nobody is suggesting that baptism and circumcision are the same, but it is unavoidable to see a connection. One must look at the history of the early church. Life then (much like today) was all about being in or out. That is what happens in any communal culture. The Jews used circumcision to create boundary lines. But, what were “Christians” to do. They were very Jewish and would have been circumcised. So, how did they create a way to be acknowledged as part of the group? Well, I would suggest baptism. And I think that idea has trickled down, or maybe even snowballed into today’s Christian culture.
Now, I would like to add that I do not disagree, necessarily, with your definitions of what the acts in themselves are. You make a clear distinction. But, to say that are unrelated (or completely different) is unthinkable to me. We must see that baptism isn’t a Christian thing. Or at least, its not in the Bible. Culturally, baptism was a Jewish thing. Just like circumcision. And I think that when we see Scriptural examples of gentile baptism post “salvation” that those are not “Christian acts” but culturally Jewish acts done because of the fact it was the messianic age.
Hmm… I really was hoping to avoid on this post. Oh shucks!
I agree with what Stephanie and others have already said. These Gentiles are converts to Christianity, not Judaism, they do not need to be circumcised as a sign that they are under the covenant,because they are not. Circumcision does not save anyways, as Paul was saying, it is only by faith, in Jesus’ death and ressurection, when he took up all our sins and guilt that we are justified in God’s eyes.Its always been about faith.It’s what PLong said about adding anything tothe the gospel makes it no longer the gospel…
Referring back to the topic of baptism, I know that there are some religions who have taken the act of baptism and turned it into something like circumcision. However, there are still some religions that do not make it so. I know that in my church we do baptism, but it is more an act of faith. We believe it to be more like you are showing others you follow Christ. We do not believe if you are not baptised then you are not saved, becauase that is not true. As for the topic of baptism becoming circumcision, I have to agree again that there are religions out there that are making it so.
………..It would be nice if some of the reporting on this subject focused on the many Jews who are opposed to circumcision.
Some Jews feel the time has come for a symbolic bris without surgery.
Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity
* Jews Against Circumcision http://www.jewsagainstcircumcision.org/
* Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D. http://www.jewishcircumcision.org
* Beyond the Bris: Jewish Parenting Blog http://www.beyondthebris.com
* A Case for Bris without Milah. http://www.circumstitions.com/Jewish.html
* Jews for the Rights of the Child http://www.jewsfortherightsofthechild.org/
It would be nice, although you guys have posted four comments now on the topic. Seems like the word is out. This blog is not discussing the value of the modern practice of circumcision, but the theological meaning of the ritual in the Second Temple Period.
Phil, while I don’t remember reading Schnabel I must ask, did he really say that Paul believes Gentiles must become Jews in order to follow the messiah? This seems to be the complete opposite of what Galatians was about. Justified by Grace and Faith alone, not by following a law.
Well spotted, Shaun. That is a huge error in my quote of Schnabel. I double checked it and I have corrected by original post. The whole line is underlined and the word not is double-underlined in my copy of the book! Glad you asked the question!
Shalom! You stated at the beginning of your article ” Circumcision is given as a sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Genesis 17, yet the ritual itself did not confer “spiritual blessing” as a sign of the covenant”. You then cited examples in which the “circumcision of the heart” was what YHVH was ultimately concerned with. However, in the Ezk.44:4,9 passage that you cited YHVH is still requiring physical circumcision in conjunction with the circumcision of the heart. Me thinks that a heart that has been circumcised will lead one to the circumcision of the flesh, a sign of the Abrahamic covenant complete with spiritual blessings!
I think that is a fair assessment, if one really has a “right heart” then certainly they are going to obey God’s commands, including circumcision. In fact, as far as we know, after Moses no Jewish person would even have thought of “not circumcising” their child, and it was not until the Hellenistic period that young Jewish men might consider reversing the marks of circumcision in order to be “more Gentile.”
Circumcision has turned into a cultural phenomenon and new followers are reach by the love and acceptance that Christ portrayed throughout his life. To compare circumcision in the biblical context to modern times is void. Circumcision for Christians should be red flag in someone clearly not understanding the Bible. We have no reason for circumcising now. Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice. Remember? Do you spread the Gospel to new believers and then say, by the way, you need circumcision? No, you simply give them the message of hope and love and acceptance so the Holy Spirit may be invited into their life and change them from within.
I think so often when we have the mindset that “the apostles were Baptists or Catholics” or whatever denomination you belong it. But it’s so vital in studying the acts of the apostles and their Jewishness. Peter, James, Paul and the others were Jewish people with Jewish traditions and ideas. In the start of Acts 15, men that came down from Judea said “unless you are circumcised according to the circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”. (Acts 15:1). This raised question to Paul and Barnabas as they the concept of should Christians keep “Jewishly” laws such as circumcision and should Gentiles practice “Jewishly” things. What I like the most about this article is when the author states “Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 15 convinced that any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all, including circumcision. Whatever God is doing among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (Acts 14), there is no conversion to Judaism.” What I got out of this statement the most is that the gospel is the gospel without adding any Law or any act. I think of Romans 8:3 which says “for God has done what the law weakened by the flesh could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin he condemned sin in the flesh”.
To a first time believer and reading parts of the bible, coming across this idea may be awkward to be reading. However, it really was a vital part in Jewish laws and beliefs. To be considered a Jew, you had to be circumcised. The article writes that “For the Jew, circumcision was one of a handful of important boundary markers which set them apart from the rest of the world.” Which gets me thinking, what do Christians do now days that “sets us apart from the rest of the world?” This was so huge for Jewish culture that they even thought of essentially modifying part of their bodies to bring themselves closer to the Laws or traditions. But what do Christians now days do? I can think of this such as baptism, offerings, and I can even think of marriage as an example of this too. We do these things to offer our worship to God in our own ways. Paul gets so upset because I believe that he is thinking of this as a way of the people were limiting themselves to only doing this specific thing, when there are so many different things that can be done to obey laws, customs or worships. Since some Gentiles thought that they HAD to do this in order to be converted into Judaism, but I think Paul gets upset at this fact that it is not the only thing that will allow you to be converted.
Interesting question Brian, Jews wanted to be set apart so much that they were willing to be circumcised. What do we as Christians do today to be set apart and show that. I liked your examples of baptism, offerings and how we do marriage. I think baptism is the best example of a thing that only Christians do that set us apart. I think that more than just doing an act one time in your life, we should be set apart by our actions. It should be clear to everyone that we are a Christian based on our actions and how we live our lives. Since Circumcision isn’t something that represents us being a Christian, we should use or everyday actions to set us apart from everyone else.
I think there are a few reasons for why he was so upset at this notion. I think one potential reason is what you mentioned, that “any Law added to the Gospel is no gospel at all”. Adding pieces of the Law to the grace that God gives nullifies it as grace. Romans 11:6 states this fact very clearly. In addition to this, one could make the argument that, if one part of the Law is added to the Gospel, couldn’t others argue that more parts of the Law should be added as well? Though this is potentially a slippery slope fallacy, it still is a viable argument. Though circumcision is a very big deal to the Jews, is it more important than other parts of the Law? Why not add being kosher to the Gospel as well as circumcision?
I think another reason is that, by adding something to the Gospel, Paul may have though that the people were missing the point of what the Gospel really was. If they thought they could add part of the Law to the Gospel, the people may picture the Gospel as a sect off of Judaism. Potentially they may have though that it was simply Judaism but with Jesus at the center and Gentiles could be included as well. This cheapens what the Gospel really is. Though that may be a stretch, it may have been one reason for Paul’s distain for adding parts of the Law to the Gospel.
Paul is upset in Acts 15 about the Gentiles partaking in circumcision because it was something being practiced and focused on more intently than having a relationship with God. Just like many laws in the Old Testament, people thought that you had to stick so closely to the law and totally lost sight of God’s desire to have a relationship with them. In fact, their promotion of the Old Testament laws implied that they did not believe in the sufficiency of the grace of God. The Pauline mission was to declare the authority and adequacy of Christ because he fulfilled all of the laws by his ministry. Therefore, the various laws, while beneficial, are no longer necessary to acquire or sustain salvation. The demand that Gentiles ought to practice circumcision in order to successfully convert frustrates Paul because he knows that the law is futile. In other words, preaching the necessity of the law to the Gentiles is unrelated to the Gospel and merely confuses its message. While it is true that circumcision is an essential part of the Jewish faith, and its practice is still admirable, it is not a part of the Christian faith. To our contemporary view, of course adult circumcision is repulsive, but even to the unbelieving Gentile, the practice was viewed with respect and reverence. So, the requirement of the law, even though it was burdensome, was appealing to the unconverted Gentiles.
I think that this post has a lot of common misconceptions when it comes to being saved. Today’s example of this that so many people think you have to be baptized in order to be saved. I just had a friend I was catching up with and here fiance just passed away and she was so thankful that he was baptized. Now I didn’t say that’s not how it works, but come to find out that he was able to talk to a minister before passing away. We need to not get upset with people when these things happen but be there to help them to better understand the true way to salvation. Paul was upset because everyone thought the only way to be saved was by circumcision. Paul just wants everyone to understand that these Gentiles can make that choice to or not to have that done, but it doesn’t define their salvation.
Paul was meeting people where they were at in life. both Jews and Gentiles and showing them that the only thing that truly matters is Jesus. If you accept Jesus then you are saved. Paul is trying to build a relationship with these people and they continue to deny him a degrade what he is sharing to the people. it was because those people were sharing false things were the reason Paul was so upset.
It seems to me that circumcision in the first century could be comparable to the 20th century view on baptism. Although water baptism is not considered necessary for salvation by many protestant Christians, it was still an expectation for church membership or sometimes even church participation. The idea that “Jesus said we ought to be baptized” was applied to the extreme case of requiring baptism for inclusion into the church community. We can look back now and say that that was not only a misinterpretation of Scripture, but also an extreme act of legalism by churches regarding the acceptance of people into the body of Christ.
However, in the first century, Jews were following the Law of Moses closely (to varying degrees of course, between the Pharisees, Hellenistic Jews, Jews in the Diaspora, and God-fearing Gentiles). I place these groups together for simplicity. However, it is brought up in the Jerusalem Council that circumcision was “according to the custom of Moses” (Acts 15:1) and the Christian Pharisees claimed that circumcision was required by the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). In short, they are claiming that they will not accept the Gentiles into their Christian community unless circumcision is performed. Peter rightly addresses this issue by bringing up the whole law (not just the circumcision) and points out that none of the patriarchs were capable of following the whole law, and therefore were condemned by it (Acts 15:10). If the Holy Spirit (important!) was given to both the Jew and Greek without distinction, then inclusion into the community was a must (Acts 15:9,11).
The follow up by James brings order to the council by suggesting that the Gentile converts should live to a moral code dictated by righteous living and Godly standards – not necessarily the Mosaic Law as a whole (Acts 15:19-20). I think in a modern sense, churches ought to accept members based on their salvation and righteous living.
In a more recent observation and application of this, there is the major issue for people in my generation who feel “left out” or “rejected” by the church. Many people my age are pushed away because of piercings, tattoos, taste in music, clothing choices, or hairstyles/colors. I think a better response from the church would be to accept a person based on their salvation status, and then direct/correct/instruct the believers in the outworking of one’s faith. This seems to be the direction that Paul, James, and Peter are going in Acts 15. Leave legalism behind, and depend on a wholistic Spirituality that is rooted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The idea of circumcision being necessary for salvation reminds me of the common ideology of doing good works to bring salvation. When Paul and Barnabas were spreading the Gospel and sharing it with Gentiles in the first century, there were many disputes about the point of circumcision. Concerning circumcision, Polhill expresses how “it seemed to many of the Jewish Christians that the church should also require this of believers” (p. 2114). Devout Pharisees went a step beyond circumcision and claimed that Gentiles converting to any form of Judaism were to also “keep the whole mosaic law as well” (Polhill, p. 2114). These pressures from the Jewish leaders led to confusion among the Gentiles and many were unclear about what truly brought salvation. The transition was taking place of the Mosaic Law being the source of salvation to Jesus being the source of salvation. This did not necessarily call practicing Jews to abandon their traditions or practices within Judaism, but it did call them to place their faith in the Gospel rather than the Mosaic Law. I believe the reason Paul was so upset at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision was because it discredited the work of Jesus. The common mindset among many “Christians” (commonly of the Catholic denomination) is that doing good works will earn me salvation. Paul debates this issue as well in Romans 4:6-7. Believing works can earn salvation also discredits the work of Jesus and supports the idea that we do not need His saving Grace. We can not gain forgiveness of sins any other way but through Christ Jesus. Paul defended this statement against the Jewish leaders valuing the Mosaic Law over Christ and also against the early Church wanting to atone for their sins through good works.
Circumcision was a part of the Jewish law and it was believed that a person could not be fully Jewish unless they followed every piece of the law. Therefore, unless a person was circumcised, he had no right to be called a Jew or follower of God. While it appeared that Gentiles were not required to follow Mosaic law, some Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles could not be saved unless they did follow the law and were circumcised (Polhill 2114). This issue was important to address because this was putting a division in the newly formed church. While the idea of circumcision was to keep the covenant that God had made with Abraham, it was removed through the death of Christ in the same way that a Jew no longer needed to make sacrifices to be forgiven of sin.
Paul then is upset because the new Christians do not understand why circumcision is not essential, thus not grasping the true meaning of the gospel. The Gentiles do not have to be circumcised to be in relation with God. Salvation did not come through these actions and the reality of the situation now was that circumcision was an unnecessary hoop to jump through that had been added to the already simple solution rather than something that actually benefited a new child of God. Any addition to the gospel makes the gospel meaningless and this is why Paul knew that he had to address the issue immediately. If salvation is changed in any way, it would cause more harm than good to the Gentiles who now believed.
In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabus disagree on the charge of whether or not gentiles should be circumcised to be saved. This difference of opinion intensely affected Paul’s theology and his relationship with the council in Jerusalem, leading to him visiting the council to discuss the matter. The matter of circumcision through the Jewish perspective of the world, concerned one’s identity with himself and his relationship with Judaism. While other cultures had similar circumcision practices, yet certain rituals and traditions were uniquely Jewish in tradition. The practice was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, however, as Long notes, the act itself did not denote “spiritual blessings”. This explains, for example, why the prophets of the Old Testament used metaphorical language to describe the Jewish people’s need to have “circumcised hearts”. For Jewish people, the act of circumcision established a separate identity from the rest of the world, which is why Paul’s contention for Gentile-believers was so radically charged among the other members of the collective community of The Way.
Paul did not disagree with gentile-circumcision for practical reasons related to missionary work, yet as a general practice, he vehemently stood against it. According to Paul, it was dangerous, considering it to possibly nullify God’s grace. Once Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he argues that any tenet added to the Gospel ends in the complete denial of the gospel itself, making the law and the gospel incompatible. It becomes clear from Paul’s theology that a gentile who comes to believe in Jesus Christ is not simply a convert to Judaism but rather something entirely different. A gentile does not convert to Judaism to follow Christ, rather his relationship with Jesus Christ stands above the law of Judaism, coming to Christ firstly before the act of conversion.
Circumcision played a long and important role in the history of Israel. As written here, it was initiated as part of the covenant between God and Abraham and the nation that was being built. It is not hard to imagine the struggle the Gentiles faced – while they might believe in the gospel, circumcision was a strange and quite odd practice. For the Gentiles, the practice did not hold any of the significance, tradition, or value as it did for the Israelites. It was a symbol of the covenant between the nation and God. Aside from the symbolism, it also became a cultural symbol. For Israelites this was an important part of what it meant to be an Israelite. So if the Gentiles were going to become part of their group – or at least believe their religion and try to migrate in – it seemed only natural to the Israelites that they would need to be circumcised as an official symbol.
Why is Paul so upset then? The chapter gives some hints. First, Paul asks why they would try to force burdens on others, especially ones that they cannot bear themselves. In this rebuke Paul also says that to do so would be to test God.
This language of testing God was not new to the Israelites either.
Migrating into Israelite culture is not the goal of spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. This spread of the gospel was initiated at Pentacost, ushering in a new kingdom. The salvation is not about extending and growing Israel – it is about a new Israel, a new people of God.
The analogy between the Jewish tradition of circumcision and modern-day worship music is one that is easy to understand the severity of this topic. During the development of the early church after Christ’s death, resurrection, and accession it may have been difficult for Jewish believers to grasp the concept that salvation was now for all, but merely just those who were Jewish and circumcised. This is similar to the ways that the church continues to develop today. Often times believers who have grown up in the faith can become “set in their ways” of how Christianity should be practiced. Sometimes it is forgotten that church is about the body of believers, rather than the church building and salvation does not come from what we do, but rather from what we believe. The Jerusalem council was firm in their beliefs that believers needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, when in fact all they have to do is believe in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to receive salvation (Acts 16: 31). Change is difficult for some individuals to handle and get used to, but that does not mean it is not necessary or even just okay. It is interesting to read about how open Paul was to this change when considering that he grew up under Jewish law and tradition to the degree of even becoming a Pharisee and holding others accountable for laws such as being circumcised in order to receive salvation. Paul’s eyes were truly open to a new view of religious practices as the Lord instructed him to stand up for in order to preach the gospel to a wide range of individuals across the region.
Circumcision was a major part of the Jewish identity which is why the Jews may have had such trouble accepting that the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised. Circumcision is what they were taught and it was physically ingrained into their bodies. The Jews had to undergo several practices to be fully accepted into Judaism. However, if the Gentiles did become circumcised that would just put them one step closer to become Jew. Which throughout the Bible we learn that God created us to all be unique and equal so I don’t believe that the Lord wanted the Gentiles to become fully like the Jews, or he would have required them to become circumcised to be fully saved.
It’s fascinating that something so important back then that it caused men physical pain for Jesus is now no longer practiced in our modern-day society. I actually can’t think of anything even similar to the importance of circumcision back then. Circumcision is known for being another way to show we are ‘set apart’ from God but I’ve never fully understood that. My mindset is that very few people will ever see that part of the male’s body. His wife will see it once they are married and maybe a few men will see it throughout his life as he relieves himself. But other than that how do people know he is circumcised? I am thinking of this in a very modern mindset and need to try to shift my thinking to the culture back then. I am sure there were no private bathrooms back then. From my understanding females tended to be pretty covered up clothing wise but maybe males were not. Or is circumcision something that was announced when the individual walked into the room? Did those who were circumcised hold their head higher, making their confidence a clear indication? Did males have to constantly show proof to prove they were circumcised?
I like the analogy that Long uses in this blog post, showing that changes have occurred in the church in order to appeal to the modern world. Having rock-styled praise bands rather than having worship music played only by a pipe-organ likely contributes to greater attendance at church in the modern world. Similarly, some people saw Paul’s rejection of circumcision as a way of appealing to the modern world, showing that circumcision was not necessary in order to have a relationship with and have faith in Jesus (Long, 2019). Some people were probably more likely to enter into faith with Jesus when they realized that they did not have a long list of specific laws and rituals that they needed to follow, including circumcision. This is a change that took place when Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected for our sins. Instead of continuing being under the law, such as those established during the Old Testament times, we are now living under grace. It is by grace through faith that we have been saved, not by works or following the Jewish law that we will be able to have a relationship with Jesus. Paul is upset at the suggestion Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision because he understood that it was no longer a requirement, and Gentiles are now included in God’s plan for restoring His kingdom. Circumcision is very symbolic to the Jews and is an important part of tradition to them, which is why some of the Jews did not like the idea of changing their tradition; however, Paul urged that circumcision is no longer necessary for the Gentiles to submit to in order to be saved.
I like what Ashley had to say above. Some churches say that you can only have a piano and no other music otherwise it is not about God. That is what makes Paul so upset at the Jews that they put so much emphasis on the law that they forgot that it is about grace through faith. The thing that people forget is that Paul was a Pharisee. He read the law and knew it cover to cover. That is why he was going around stoning these new Christians in the first place. They were not following the law. Then Jesus gives him a revelation about the gentiles being about the Law and that it is grace through faith. Paul is saying that the law that he knows is no longer important. It is about Jesus and his death and resurrection. This is why Paul is saying that circumcision is no longer needed, for he too was under the law and followed it.
The importance of circumcision throughout the Bible cannot be overstated, yet time and time again it seems to be a hardly ever discussed topic amongst believers today. The tension that unravels in the New Testament and especially in Acts as the early Christian church unfolds is that struggle as to whether obey the old law or the new law. Jesus made it so His people were no longer under the old law, but they are now saved under grace, under the new law. The struggle we find here in Acts as we go on that God’s people are hesitant to abandon the age-old principles found in the old law, and the concept of circumcision is no exception. Paul makes a great point as pointed out in your blog that understanding and embracing being under the new law of grace is critical, if believers continued to go on with the tradition of circumcision with the knowledge that Christ has saved them, they indeed would be in danger of nullifying God’s grace. Perhaps Paul was upset because of this very fact. As a man whose body of work involves preaching the gospel and with that very much is the concept of the new law, I believe it would very much upset him to see the gentiles flat out refute the new law.
I’ve heard alot of people say need to keep law of moses and it really made me muddled because i thought if we had to i know it is Jesus who saves us and not works or the law is why was unsure why it was said as didn’t want to convert to judaism am not long come to the faith and still trying to understand things but i rely upon Jesus to save me and forgive me can i be forgiven of such misunderstanding if confessed?
In the current age, one is save by God’s grace, through faith, and not of works (lest anyone should boast), Ephesians 2:8-9. In Galatians Paul is quite clear the Gentiles are not under the Jewish covenant and it is spiritually dangerous for Gentiles to try and keep the law.
See this, for example: https://readingacts.com/2019/09/28/freedom-in-christ-galatians-513-16/
Or this post on Romans 4: https://readingacts.com/2019/10/17/abrahams-faith-and-works-in-romans-4/
There is a running debate amongst a lot of things and one of those in the book of Acts is the question of why is circumcision so important. Another question could be what is the issue of circumcision in Acts? According to Acts chapter 15, the Jewish Christian leaders of the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem rejected circumcision as a requirement for Gentile converts. This was something different than what it once was earlier in the Bible. This is the first act of differentiation of Early Christianity from its Jewish roots. Many became to question the reasoning in the first place and why it was so important after all. One person who is in this debate and in the general form of things talking about circumcision is Paul. One thing we might expect Paul to do when it comes to this debate is to tell the Gentiles not to be circumcised because they are Gentiles and not Jews. This can make people believe that the overall meaning behind circumcision is meaningless ad there is no reason for it. The reason that Paul disagreed with circumcision was that he believed that having circumcision done was adopting the Jewish law that was leaving gentiles in the same predicament facing non-judaizing gentiles. The reason that circumcision might be so important is the simple fact that this is an act or a physical sign of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, many believed by doing this you were showing a sign to God you had believed and there was a covenant between them.
While reading this blog post, all I could think about was a good comparison I could use to represent how circumcision affected the early church and who could be a part of it. The debate was if the Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be a part of the Jewish Church or if being circumcised was too legalistic to the point where the Jews just threw that out of the window. I like how Long used the comparison of which style of worship people use during their Church worship. Circumcision is one of the bigger deciding factors of how it is through faith you are saved, not by your doings or your works. Along with baptism, being baptized is not what saves you, it is an extra doing to help proclaim your faith, just like the mindset of being circumcized could have been changed. Circumcision was a physical pain that men had to go through to show their obedience and faith in Christ. There isn’t another analogy that shows the complete pain the men had to go through and the trust they had to have. Persecution is another analogy that could be close: having to endure pain for your obedience and commitment to Jesus, but the Jews said circumcision was necessary while persecution is something that comes with being a Christian, not something that is an action to be saved. In all, I liked reading Long’s post on circumcision and how it is important to the early church. It isn’t an idea talked about today in other ways than the history of it. Many people don’t bring up the importance of it, so it was informational to learn about the importance of it.
Circumcision has been an increasingly more talked about topic. In Acts 15, circumcision is such an important issue in which Paul travels to Jerusalem, so that he can discuss the matter with Peter, James, and members of the community of Jerusalem. The most important question to ask ourselves with this is why? Long (2019) gives a quite a few different explanations for why circumcision was such an important aspect. One explanation that Long points out is that circumcision is a given sign of the Covenant of Abraham in Gen 17. For this, it was shown that prophets were told they needed a circumcised heart. Another point that was made was that Jews thought that circumcision was required for the convert to Judaism. For this was a boundary marker which made them different from the rest of the world. A final thought that was brought up was that Paul did not reject circumcision for Gentile converts for practical missionary concerns. Gentiles were attracted to Judaism in the first century, but if this is the case, “it could explain why Paul’s Gentile churches in Galatia were tempted to accept circumcision” (para 5). I find circumcision a symbolism of conversion from one religious aspect to another.
The problem they faced is that you are not saved unless you are circumcised as the law of Moses said (Acts 15). Paul was trained by the high pharisee, the jew leader Gamaliel. He knows about the law, he knows what was talking about and why circumcision was given and knows the purpose of that law. Paul upset and discussed and debated because he knew that the words that they spread were not right and against the Gospel of Christ. Also, he had been through and converted from that life. So he knows well what circumcision means. In Genesis 17: 10-11 said: ‘’this is my covenant, which you shall keep male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins. And it shall be a SIGN of the covenant between me and you’’ (ESV).
Paul do not against circumcision but he is upset with only wrong believing. Circumcision is for the Jews people to know that they are the chosen people or the holy people or the people of the Living God. it is the sign of covenant but now it changes. Changed in Christ. Jesus died on the cross and rose in three days and overcame death. He made a covenant once for all. And those who believe in Him become the righteous person and become the son of God (John 1:12). In this way, Paul also mentions that we are saved only by God’s grace not by our own works (Ephesians 2:8).
For Jews, circumcision was a large part of their identity. Not only was it a large part of their identity, but it was also a large part of their cultural traditions. And for any people group, especially strict rule-following people such as the Pharisees, change was not something that was done willingly at first. On the other hand, for the Gentiles, circumcision was something that was foreign and perhaps seen as gruesome. As Long mentions, for Gentiles who were attracted to Christianity, there were different levels of interest. For those who were curious, probably after finding out that they were going to be forced to undergo circumcision, most likely was a turn off for many Gentiles. Therefore, since Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), Christians were set free from the bondage of the Law and could live in the grace of Jesus Christ. However, since a large number of Christ followers were Jews at first, they understandably wanted to live according to their customs and traditions that were passed down since they were children. And although since this incident in Acts 15 circumcision has not been required in the churches or for conversion, perhaps there are other things that Christians are holding onto and imposing on new believers in today’s society.
I wonder if perhaps Paul’s problem was not so much with the physical Act of Gentile believers becoming circumcised if 1) they truly understood that it was not necessary for salvation and 2) they simply wanted to participate in Jewish tradition, but with the fact that some Gentile believers may *not* understand that it is not necessary. This was not a situation where a few Gentiles decided they wanted to fully convert to Judaism, but a situation where “[the Pharisees] not only argued that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved but also that they were required to keep the whole Mosaic law as well, for circumcision represented a commitment to observe the law” (Polhill, p. 2114). The Gentiles are being told that the Grace of God is not enough, and that they must become fully Jewish in order to be saved.
I don’t think that Paul is saying that if a Gentile believer becomes baptized that it *automatically* “nullify” the grace of God. Rather, the worry is that people are going through the ritual without *actually* being saved. The act of circumcision did not somehow magically become a bad act. Rather, Paul (and Peter) are emphasizing that God *has not required it* for the Gentiles, so why are they trying to push it still?
In some ways I would compare circumcision to water baptism today. I don’t believe that water baptism is bad, I just don’t believe it’s necessary for salvation (or even to be in good standing with God). However, I think that for some people it can actually be a stumbling block. Rather than viewing the grace of God as totally sufficient for salvation, they feel “more saved” if they are publicly water baptized. If someone has a true understanding of salvation and is getting baptized because they want to make a public declaration, all the power to them. However, if they are doing it because they believe it’s a “necessary” step to take *in addition* to spiritual baptism, that’s where I think it can become a slippery slope.
Paul was upset in Acts 15:1-2 at the suggestion that Gentile converts ought to submit to circumcision because he believed it was a direct attack on the gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone. For Paul, circumcision was a symbol of the Jewish law, and to require Gentile converts to undergo circumcision would be to require them to submit to the entire Jewish law. This would effectively be adding works to the gospel message, which Paul intensely opposed. Furthermore, Paul saw circumcision as an unnecessary burden that Gentile converts should not have to bear, as seen in Galatians 5:1-3 where he says that Christ has set us free and circumcision will not do anything for them. In essence, Paul believed that requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised was an attack on the grace of God and the freedom that believers have in Christ. He argued that salvation was not dependent on adherence to Jewish law or customs, but on faith in Jesus Christ. This was a central message of his ministry, and he was willing to fight for it, even if it meant going against other Jewish Christians who believed differently. Therefore, for Paul, the issue of circumcision was not simply a matter of cultural adaptation or personal preference, but a fundamental theological issue that went to the heart of the gospel message. He believed that any requirement beyond faith in Christ for salvation was a dangerous perversion of the gospel, and he was willing to defend this message at all costs.
The first thing to mention in Acts 15 is why Paul is upset at the suggestion that Gentiles should be circumcised. I think the main picture Paul wants the Gentiles, and even the Jews, to understand is that circumcision does not lead to salvation. This is important because like this blog post says it can lead a person to be in danger of nullifying the grace of God. I think the same thing can be compared to how some people believe baptism can lead to salvation or how good works leads to salvation. If these things are focused on too much it can lead to people believing these actions will save their soul when in reality it is only through Jesus Christ in which we can be saved.
It is interesting to think of the importance that circumcision had on the Jews and the church. They almost worshipped it in a broad sense. In today’s world people are simply circumcised because of cleanliness reasons and are sometimes looked at funny if someone finds out they are not circumcised. Therefore, it is strange to think of Paul’s time or even before him and look at the importance of it.
I think the main reason Paul is upset about the suggestion of Gentiles to submit to circumcision is because Paul knows in the end it does not matter! It will not save the Gentiles so why force them to follow a law that is not meant for them and does not do them any good. The Jews almost seem to idolize being circumcised and view themselves as holier and higher than the Gentiles which simply is not true. I think this is why Paul is so upset at this suggestion.