Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved.
This title quickly catches our attention because it threatens the Christian understanding of circumcision in connection with the word "salvation". Here we will attempt to study the 1st verse of Acts 15 not from the perspective of systematic theology but rather from the perspective solely based on its context and text itself. Part of this study is to seek out the main idea based upon the words and sentence structures. A single verse cannot be understood without the context, so let us read the following as a complete unit of thought:
"And when they arrived and gathered the assembly together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they remained no little time with the disciples. But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'" (Act 14:27-28, 15:1)
When Paul and Barnabas returned to their home base congregation in Antioch, Syria after their first outreach to the Jews, they reported of the marvelous things the LORD had done thru them, one of which was the miracle that "a door of faith to the Gentiles" had been opened. You might be wondering why they would make such a statement if Antioch was where believers were called "Christians", and by definition, this word implies the majority of the believing community were Gentiles. But the text of Acts 11:19-20 paints a different picture:
"Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus."
These verses speak of the Jewish congregation that consisted of the Jews and Hellenists, or Greek assimilated Jews. Hellenists is the same word used in Acts 6:1 and Acts 9:29, always referring to Jews, not Gentiles, who adopted the Greek ways. The Antioch congregation wasn't the "Church" as we think of "Church" today - predominately Gentile based in culture and thought. We must keep this perspective as we study why some of the believing Jews in Judea thought it important that the Gentiles who were converting to the God of Israel (Acts 15:3) needed to become circumcised? They were zealous in their faith for the Messiah of Israel and desired to do the right thing. In their minds, circumcision somehow was connected to "salvation". Why?
Israel Centric Scriptural Perspective
The scriptures have their center on a very specific people group: Israel. The past, the present and the future fulfillment of the Scriptures all center on the same theme: "God dealing with Israel and the Nations."
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations/Gentiles shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths."For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations/Gentiles, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isa 2:2-4)
In the latter days, when "The Tabernacle of David" (Amos 9:11) is restored, nations will be nations and Israel will be Israel. God always has and will have this distinction because of His faithfulness to the promises He gave to Abraham. The passage in Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem being the center of God’s judgment to the nations/Gentiles "for out of Zion shall go forth the law". What law is God referring to? Notice how nations are judged by this law. What was the law of the land when the text from Acts 15 was written? Yes, the Law of Moses is what was known to the believers of this time. These believers from Judea were convinced that as Yeshua Himself was circumcised on the 8th day (Luke 2:21) according to the covenant of circumcision (Genesis 17), anybody that wanted to enter this covenantal relationship with Israel had to do the same. More on the covenant of circumcision when we will be discussing Acts 15:5. The keyword for our understanding of the question "Why" lies in the word "saved". What do we understand this word to mean to us today as believers? We must be frank with the assessment of this word. Does it mean our eternity spent in Heaven? Or could it mean the restoration of Israel and the nations?
The Greek Septuagint word for saved is σώζω sōzō (G4982) and used over 110 times in the New Covenant and usually translated as "save". The origin of the Greek Septuagint can never be understood apart from its original words found in the Hebrew language, thus we have the Hebrew word for saved being יָשַׁע yâsha‛ (H3467) and is used over 205 times. The meaning of this word ranges from "deliver", "rescue" and "salvation", where we get the name Yeshua. The first mention of this word is found in Exodus 2:17:
The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.
We know of Moses as the Deliverer of Israel from Egypt and in this verse, we see the seedlings of the mission that God had for him as one who saves. The context of this text had to do with the physical delivery of the women from the other shepherds.
God’s salvation of the nation of Israel began during the 1st Passover feast in Egypt. It was He who not only performed great miracles and wonders but Who “saved” them physically from the destruction they faced:
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. (Exo 14:30)
I highly recommend that you do your own personal study on this word throughout the Scriptures to glean the vast expanse of the text that it covers. Moses declares this after their great victory over their enemy: The LORD is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation (יְשׁוּעָה yeshû‛âh (H3444); this is my God, and I will praise Him, my father's God, and I will exalt Him. (Exo 15:2).
In the "Book of Retelling" (aka Deuteronomy) Moses prophetically declared in his final blessing on the people of Israel:
"Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs." (Deu 33:29)
The words occur many times in Judges as God continued to deliver Israel from the surrounding nations when and only when Israel turned back to their "Saviour." Psalms is full of the usage of this word, as well. Here is one such example:
"For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah, and people shall dwell there and possess it." (Psa 69:35)
God’s promise in the latter days of saving Zion is an ongoing theme of the prophets, as well:
"But Israel is saved by the LORD with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded to all eternity. For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (He is God!), who formed the earth and made it (He established it; He did not create it empty, He formed it to be inhabited!): "I am the LORD, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, 'Seek Me in vain.' I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right. "Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save. Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides Me. "Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By Myself I have sworn; from My mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.'" (Isa 45:17-23)
"Turn to me and be saved" was Paul’s simple message in Lystra where the people worshiped their Greek idols and gods. Later in his letter to the Philippians, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23:
"Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Yeshua every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth." Phil 2:10
The salvation of the nations has never been intended apart from Israel's complete restoration.
Too often, you hear that the Jewish people missed the mark on accepting their "Messiah" but what we don’t realize is that Israel’s salvation and the punishment of the nations go hand in hand. Both groups are judged according to the Word of God, not apart from His Torah. Notice that only "survivors of the nations" are going to be part of the restored plan.
"Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it. “And it shall come to pass in that day, declares the LORD of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of him. But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them. “Then fear not, O Jacob My servant, declares the LORD, nor be dismayed, O Israel; for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with you to save you, declares the LORD; I will make a full end of all the nations among whom I scattered you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished."(Jer 30:7-11)
This is the passage theologians use to create the term the "great tribulation", which is actually called by the LORD here as "a time of distress for Jacob." This doesn’t sound like God has done away with Israel but rather speaks of a just God who will fulfill His plans and purposes for His people in His appointed time.
The Messianic prophecy which foretold of Yeshua entering the gates of Jerusalem and riding on a donkey, termed by theologians as the "triumphant entry", depicts so clearly the promises to Zion by God in its fulfillment:
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zec 9:9)
This prophetic message from Zechariah doesn’t stop there, though. He goes on to say:
"Then the LORD will appear over them (Israel), and His arrow will go forth like lightning; the Lord GOD will sound the trumpet and will march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. The LORD of hosts will protect them(Israel), and they shall devour, and tread down the sling stones, and they shall drink and roar as if drunk with wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar. On that day the LORD their God will save them, as the flock of His people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on His land. For how great is His goodness, and how great His beauty! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women." (Zec 9:14-17)
According to this text "His people" are not the "church" or the "saints of the ages" but Israel, the Jewish people. This was the understanding of the 1st century Jewish nation. This is why their expectancy from the Messiah was the conquest of the Romans and their final delivery from the oppression of the nations. Despite the fact that the Jewish leadership missed the mark on seeing Yeshua as their promised Messiah, if we read the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we see that there was always a following of believers and that many Jewish people believed – many, not few.
The promises of the people and of the land that God gave to Abraham (Gen. 15) must still be fulfilled.
"And the LORD will give salvation to the tents of Judah first, that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may not surpass that of Judah. On that day the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them. And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on Me, on Him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over Him, as one weeps over a firstborn." (Zec 12:7-10)
A national revival for Israel is what is prophetically spoken here. Israel understood salvation is actually a physical delivery from those nations that will come against Jerusalem in the future. Let us take a moment to think about this. If the majority of the nations today are "Christian" nations, then why do they come against the land and the people where the King of the Jews will reign and rule? All you have to do is walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem today and you will see Christians from all over the world, but the vast majority of them walk out their "faith" in their churches and with their own practices but without any thought to the Jewish people – the same people that God still loves and plans to restore. The salvation of the nations is not more important or significant, nor can they be fulfilled apart from the salvation of Israel. The Scriptures speak of Israel being the center of His plans and purposes. Unfortunately, much of the History of the Church either replaces Israel or leaves her till the end for God to then deal with her, which contradicts Paul’s explanation of the mystery, "that through the Good News the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Yeshua the Messiah." Eph 3:6
Scriptural salvation had to do with physical deliverance from an enemy. This idea doesn't contradict what Yeshua accomplished on the cross because the "faith of Abraham" is about the resurrection from the dead. At the resurrection, everyone will be judged for eternity according to what is written in the book of life:
"At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." (Dan 12:1-3)
Daniel was looking and praying for the restoration of Israel. The LORD gave him much more than he ever asked for. He received numerous Messianic prophecies, some of which have yet to be fulfilled. At the end of the age, as we know it, Israel will be the center of God’s plan and we see that the people of Israel will be judged according to what is written in the "Book". John saw this same book and called it the "Book of Life." (Rev. 21:27)
The final deliverance for believers is from eternal death and into enteral life with Him at the resurrection from the dead. This will be a physical resurrection and a physical deliverance – this is salvation. When Yeshua was physically resurrected, He returned in His physical body. As believers, we are delivered from the final judgment - not based on how good we are but based on what Yeshua has done. Let’s now bring it all home. What does all of this have to do with circumcision?
I am so glad you asked! If God’s salvation plan was and is about the national restoration of Israel, how does one, who is a Gentile, legally become a partaker in the promises and the Covenants that were made exclusively with Israel?
What do you mean exclusively with Israel, you ask? Wasn’t the New Covenant made with the Gentiles? Ahhhh, this is where we need to stand by the very simple principle that "words have meaning" and we must carefully study their meaning within their context and must never read "meaning" into the words. Let’s read the New Covenant for ourselves:
"Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in My covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." (Heb 8:8-12, Jeremiah 31:31-34)
As we can see God has promised to make a New Covenant with the united house of Israel in verse 10. Thus, the Jewish believers that wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised thought that in order for them to enter this New Covenant, then they must be part of national Israel by means of circumcision. The sign of circumcision was always viewed as belonging to Israel in order to inherit the promises and Covenants which lead the believer to physical salvation, or a deliverance, on the judgment day.
The issue of the Gentiles joining with Israel in order to receive the inheritance of the promises was the same topic in the Letter to the Ephesians. Explanation of the nature of these two groups becoming one, which we know today as the bride of Messiah, was given by Paul here:
"Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Messiah, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Yeshua the Messiah you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Messiah." (Eph 2:11-13)
Paul made four things clear:
- The Gentile’s original state was separate from Messiah,
- They were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,
- They were strangers to the Covenants of Promise, and
- They were without hope and without God.
This is what was at stake when the Jewish believers were discussing the issue of circumcision for the Gentiles. They wondered at the salvation and inclusion of the Gentiles, who had just turned away from idolatry to be joined in with Israel and believing in the “God of Israel.” It makes sense now to see the concern some Jewish believers might have had about the legal issue of being a part of the Covenants and Promises that ultimately gave everyone hope in God. This is the foundation for the subsequent discussions that took place within the believers in 1st century Jerusalem. We will pick up our next discussion on the ensuing verses in Acts 15.
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