And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." [Acts 15:1; NKJV]
But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses." [Acts 15:5; NKJV]
Here we have two parties making claims about what the believing gentiles must do. The circumcision party said that they must be circumcised to be saved. The Pharisees said it is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses, but said nothing about that being necessary for salvation. This is an important distinction that most will not catch. Also, if you read verse 5 carefully, you will notice that the Pharisees who said this were believers in Yeshua. Another important detail that is often overlooked, especially in light of the fact that the other group is not referred to as believers.
The reason that these key details are overlooked is (as mentioned earlier) the false doctrine that the teaching of obedience is, by definition, salvation by works. But if you read the three verses between 1 and 5, and the 2 verses immediately following 5, you'll notice that there is a 3-way dispute on what the gentiles need to do and for what purpose.
The fact that the circumcision party is not described as believers, and says that circumcision is necessary for salvation tells you everything you need to know about them: They rely on their own works to be saved, rather than the Work of Yeshua on the cross. It's also telling that they used the word "custom" instead of "law" or "command" when describing circumcision. Is this a subtle admission that the Law of God does not require foreigners who join with the house of Israel to be circumcised? And that this is a human tradition?
What about the believing Pharisees, who have the entirety of the Law of Yahweh memorized from early childhood? They seem to have made a distinction between circumcision and keeping God's Law. Is this another hint that God's commands concerning circumcision are not what we think they are? Also, you may have noticed at the end of my post on Good Friday vs Passover that I said it's okay if you don't want to keep the Passover because of it's requirements. But how can I say that and pass the Deuteronomy 13 Test unless the Law of Yahweh does not say what you think it says? Let's examine what the Law says concerning circumcision, starting in Genesis!
9 And God said to Abraham: "As for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. 10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant." [Genesis 17:9-14; NKJV]
Anyone descended from Abraham, and those living in the house of someone descended from Abraham, whether born into said house or bought with money from a foreigner, is to be circumcised. But what about the foreigner that is not living in the house of a descendent of Abraham? That person does not have to be circumcised according to this passage. But what about the other commandments?
43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it. 44 But every man’s servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then he may eat it. 45 A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat it. 46 In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 And when a stranger dwells with you and wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land. For no uncircumcised person shall eat it. 49 One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you." [Exodus 12:43-49; NKJV]
Any woman living by herself may eat the Passover, since there are, by definition, no males in that house that need to be circumcised (at least, I don't remember reading anything that says otherwise). But if any house has any males in it, then all the males in that house must be circumcised before anyone in that house is allowed to eat the Passover. And eating the Passover without all the males in the house being circumcised is wickedness. Let's see what other rules there are concerning circumcision.
1 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 "Speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. 3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.'" [Leviticus 12:1-3; NKJV]
This is basically re-affirming Genesis 17:12. So not much extra information here. We see another command to be circumcised in Deuteronomy 10:16, but this time, it's a circumcision of the heart. And again in Deuteronomy 30:6. Where have we heard of circumcision of the heart before? That's right, Jeremiah 4:4! Oh, you were thinking of "New Testament" passages? Well, I just happened to find this one in Jeremiah and couldn't resist the bait and switch! Romans 2:29 talks about circumcision of the heart.
Anyways, circumcision is a sign of the covenant between Yahweh and the physical descendants of Israel. And only the physical descendants of Israel, along with anyone who is living in the house of a physical descendant of Israel, must be circumcised, along with all of their descendants after them forever. This may be one of the reasons why the Apostle Paul circumcised Timothy in Acts 16:1-3. The only exception to this rule is for the foreigner who wants to celebrate the Passover. And of course, there is nothing stopping someone who is not a descendant of Israel from joining into the same covenant as Israel. And concerning the New Covenant, there is no indication whatsoever of a gentile being required to be circumcised to be a part of the New Covenant. At least, none that I can remember.
So, both the circumcision party and the Pharisees acknowledge that circumcision of the gentiles is not part of God's Law. And when Peter testified in Acts 15:6-9 what happened to the gentiles that believed, that they received the Holy Spirit, though they had not been circumcised, and after Barnabas and Paul testified concerning the believing gentiles in Acts 15:12, and after James gave his testimony concerning what the prophets said in Acts 15:13-17, it was agreed by the entire assembly that the gentiles do not need to be circumcised to be a part of the New Covenant. Literally the only reason a believer from among the gentiles has to become circumcised is be able to keep the Passover without becoming guilty of sin!
So what about the keeping of the Law? Well, here's what the Apostle James said:
19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath. [Acts 15:19-21; NKJV]
Now here's where things get interesting. There are four rules listed here. Abstain from sexual immorality, and from eating blood, strangled meat, or foods polluted by idols. The word translated as "sexual immorality" is the Greek word "porneia", which literally means prostitution, and is sometimes used to refer to sexual immorality in general. The KJV translates this word as "fornication", which at the time that the KJV was written, also meant prostitution, but now means premarital sex.
So, does that mean that lying is now okay? How about stealing or murder? Some people, without thinking about the implications of what they say, interpret Acts 15:20 to mean we only have to follow the 4 rules mentioned in that verse. Do you see the problem with that interpretation? Also, who decides what is or is not sexually immoral? Do we really want to leave that up to man to decide? Of course not. And if we translate the passage as saying "abstain from prostitution", then what about fornication, or adultery. If we translate it as saying "abstain from fornication", then that also takes care of prostitution, but what about adultery, incest, or sodomy? And although the rules are to abstain from eating foods polluted by idols, it doesn't say anything about not worshiping the idols! Or using them to worship Yeshua. Well, that's where verse 21 comes in. The gentile believers are expected to attend the synagogues every Sabbath. Either that or everyone in that assembly just failed the Deuteronomy 13 Test and are guilty of teaching idolatry.
As it turns out, in those days, the gentiles regularly met in the synagogues with the Jews. For example, in Acts 13:42, there were clearly gentiles in the synagogues on the Sabbath (Saturday) eager to hear what Paul had to say from one Sabbath to the next. Go ahead and read it and the verses after it. Acts 14:1 is another example where the gentiles are clearly attending the synagogues every Sabbath. And again in Acts 17:1-4, and Acts 17:10-12. There are even more examples after that. So it is expected of the gentile believers to attend the synagogues every Saturday to learn the Law of Yahweh, to keep it.
Notice that these believing gentiles are saved, though they do not know the law. And as they learn the law, they are still saved though they now keep it. These believers want to do what is right in the eyes of God. And keeping God's Law is right in the eyes of God. Like I've said before: We don't keep the Law to be saved, we keep the Law because we're saved.
Remember, in Acts 15:1, these gentile were told that they must be circumcised to be saved. In Acts 15:24, somebody added "saying, 'You must be circumcised and keep the law'—to whom we gave no such commandment—". There's a good way to lead people into idolatry. How do we know it was added? Simple: The gentiles were told "you must be circumcised to be saved" (Acts 15:1), not "you must be circumcised and keep the law". Plus, not all manuscripts have the part that I just quoted. Not to mention the Deuteronomy 13 Test that I mentioned earlier. Notice that the believing Pharisees in Acts 15:5 did not tell the gentiles "you must be circumcised and keep the Law", but took up their petition with the Apostles concerning the gentile believers. And they didn't dare say it was to be saved because they knew salvation was by faith!
We also know that the last part of Acts was added to because of the vast amount of evidence that that the gentiles were in the synagogues every Sabbath learning the Law of God, and that Acts 15:21 expects this norm to continue, thereby satisfying the believing Pharisees' beliefs that it is necessary to teach the gentiles to keep God's Law.
Now the Law is broken-up into large portions, which are called "portions" (but with the Hebrew word for "portions"). Over the course of a year, the Torah is read, one portion each week, until the entire Torah has been read. Then they start over at the beginning once they have finished reading through the entire Torah. So the gentiles will learn a small portion of Torah at a time rather than being required to learn it all at once and be overwhelmed by it. The Apostles' letter to the gentiles addressed the four most important issues of the time as simply the starting point. Notice that their letter said nothing about not having to stop attending synagogue, which they were already doing.