Acts 15 – Does the Law (Torah) apply to Gentiles?

In this blog entry, I hope to address a popular argument against a Torah Pursuant belief system. That argument is that the Torah (specifically the Sabbath, Feasts and dietary instructions) were given only to the Nation of Israel, or the Jews, and not to non-Jewish Christians. However, if we examine the scriptures, we find that those very commandments were given to mankind before the nation of Israel even existed. The most obvious example is the Sabbath, which was established at the very beginning of creation before there ever were any Jewish people:

  • And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
    -Genesis 2:2-3

In fact, one of the main reasons God created the sun and the moon was for His people to determine the times of His Feasts, or appointed times:

  • And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years
    -Genesis 1:14

The word “seasons” in Genesis 1:14 is translated from the Hebrew word “moed” which is Strongs: H4150, and it means “an appointment, that is, a fixed time or season; specifically a festival.” Not only that, but Noah was also commanded to discern between clean and unclean animals, long before the nation of Israel was given those commandments:

  • Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his,mate
    -Genesis 7:1-2

Not only was God’s moral code for His people established long before YHWH delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt, but we also see Paul – in post-Resurrection times – encouraging his Gentile converts to keep the Feast of Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7-8), Gentile Christians keeping the Sabbath with Jews (Acts 18:4), and, of course, “all mankind” (specifically mentioning Egyptians) will be keeping the Sabbath and the Feast of Tabernacles after Yeshua returns (Isaiah 66, Zechariah 14). Let’s also not forget what Paul said in regards to this very topic:

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
    -Galatians 3:28

The bottom line is that the definition of sin is transgression of the Torah (Romans 7:7, 1 John 3:4), which includes commandments like “keep the Sabbath” and “don’t eat pork.” It’s simply illogical to say that God has a different standard of sin for certain people depending on their race. Can Jews “sin” in a way that Gentiles can’t? Of course not! Just as Salvation is not exclusive or conditional upon race, neither is God’s standard of living for all of His people.

One of the scriptures used as a “proof-text” to support the doctrine that God has a different standard of sin for Gentiles is Acts 15:18-20. Let’s examine these verses in context and determine if such a doctrine holds water:

Acts 15

  • 1 AND certain men who had come down from Judea taught the brethren, Unless you are circumcised in accordance with the custom of the law you cannot be saved.

We see here in verse one that the topic of the debate was not over whether or not the Gentiles should keep the Torah/Law for daily living, but rather, whether or not they are required to get circumcised in accordance with the custom of the Torah/Law for salvation. Therefore, the context of this chapter must be interpreted from the issue that was put before Judge James: Do believers need to keep the Torah in order to be saved? If we start this chapter by assuming that the debate is over whether or not Gentiles should keep the Torah for daily living, we will likely draw an inaccurate conclusion of what this chapter is teaching us. With that in mind, let’s continue…

  • 2 And there was great dissension and controversy between them and Paul and Barnabas, and it reached such a point that it was necessary for Paul and Barnabas and others with them to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this question.

This was such a dispute between believers that Paul and Barnabas had to go to Jerusalem to address this issue of whether or not Paul’s converts had to keep the Torah/Law to be saved.

  • 3 They were given an escort and sent on their way by the church, and they traveled through all Phoenicia and the territory of the Samaritans, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. 4 On their arrival at Jerusalem, they were received by the church, and by the apostles and elders; and they reported everything that God had done with them. 5 But some of the men who had been converted from the sect of the Pharisees rose up and said, You must circumcise them and command them to keep the law of Moses.

From the Pharisees’ perspective, no one could be saved unless they converted to Judaism. The Pharisees didn’t have a reference point for being “instantly saved,” so-to-speak, and it apparently really bothered them that Paul was not putting more emphasis on the “conversion process” (the process Cornelius was going through at the time), which was such a huge part of Pharisaic tradition. Therefore, the Pharisees are questioning whether or not the Gentiles are even saved.

  • 6 Then the apostles and elders assembled to consider this matter. 7 And after much controversy, Simon Peter rose up and said to them, Men and brethren, you know that from the early days God chose that from my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows what is in the heart, has testified concerning them and has given them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us. 9 And he did not discriminate between us and them, because he purified their hearts by faith.

Right here, we see Peter establishing the fact that the Gentiles are saved the same way Jews are – by faith.

  • 10 Now therefore why do you tempt God by putting a yoke upon the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

This is a key verse. Some Christians might read into this verse and assume that Peter is referring to the Torah/Law itself as a burdensome yoke. He just stated that the Gentiles are saved by faith in the same way that Jews are – the moment that they heard the Word and believed. Therefore, in keeping with his argument that we are only saved by faith, he asks the obvious question (My paraphrase): “How can you be saved by faith, but then add all these extra prerequisites associated with Torah Observance to the Gospel presented to the Gentiles, especially when we Jews couldn’t keep the Law to be saved in the first place?” Such a works-based Salvation doctrine is a “yoke that no one could bear”. The Torah/Law was never designed to save anyone. It’s simply God’s standard of daily living for His people. Salvation is by Grace through Faith alone. This verse can’t be in reference to the Torah/Law itself, because all throughout scripture, God’s commandments are called “liberty,” “life,” and a “delight” (e.g. Psalm 119, Romans 7:22). John says that God’s commands are “not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). So there’s either a contradiction in scripture, or, keeping with the context of the chapter, Peter is not referring to the Law, but rather, a works-based Salvation doctrine.

  • 11 But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved even as they.

This verse is more confirmation that this dispute in Acts 15 is over salvation, not whether or not the Gentiles should observe Torah for daily living.

  • 12 Then the whole congregation was silent and listened to Paul and Barnabas, who were declaring the miracles and signs among the Gentiles and everything which God had wrought by their hands. 13 And when they had ceased speaking, James rose up and said, Men and brethren, hear me: 14 Simon Peter has told you how God from the beginning chose a people from the Gentiles for his name 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, 16 After this I will return, and I will set up again the tabernacle of David which has fallen down; and I will repair what has fallen from it, and I will set it up, 17So that the men who remain may seek after the Lord, and also all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called; so said the Lord who does all these things.

After Paul and Barnabas declare all the amazing things God has been doing among the Gentiles, James rises up proves through the prophets that the mind of God was always to save the Gentiles as well as the Jews.

  • 18 The works of God are known from the very beginning. 19 Because of this I say, Do not trouble those who turn to God from among the Gentiles: 20 But let us send word to them that they abstain from defilement by sacrifices to idols and from fornication and from animals strangled and from blood.

It is important to understand that many of these Gentiles in the first century were coming out of pagan religions, which had their own religious observances. All of the ancient cults had Sabbaths, new moons, feast days and they sacrificed animals to their gods as well as had no problem with temple prostitution, drinking blood, and eating the flesh that was sacrificed to their gods. By default, some of the Gentiles were bringing their former backgrounds and practices into their new faith with the Messiah. The four commands listed here in verse 20 are related to their former way of worshiping other gods. So, although James sides with Peter and Paul that everyone is saved by faith, and they do not have to do things to earn their salvation, he is setting up some basic standards by which the Gentiles need to adhere if they wish to be considered part of the fellowship.

  • 21 For Moses, from the very early centuries, had preachers in the synagogues in every city to read his books on every Sabbath day.

This is a key verse. James is making a wise judgment, which, by default, satisfies both sides of this debate. His judgment is that the Gentiles are saved the same way that the Jews are saved (by grace through faith); that they are to start out with these four basic commands to be part of the fellowship; and that they will learn the rest of the Law of Moses (Torah) every Sabbath in the synagogue, as verse 21 points out.

To use a more modern analogy, this is like a porn star coming to church one day and then accepting Jesus as the Messiah. She then decides that she wants to be part of the fellowship, however, there are several congregants petitioning the pastor in regards to how they have issues with this new convert smoking, drinking, cussing, etc… The pastor then responds with a wise judgment that the first thing this new convert needs to do if she wishes to be part of the congregation is quit the porn industry. The rest of the congregants who have known the Messiah for a long time need to slow down, relax, and consider where this brand new Christian has come from. Then, the Pastor reassures the other congregants that the new convert will learn the rest of the important parts of God’s Word every week as he preaches the Word.

I think it’s interesting to note that the James making this judgment in Acts 15 is the same James who declares in his own book: “Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18). Interestingly enough, he makes that statement after he instructs his readers to be doers of the Word and not merely hearers only! The “Word” to which he is referring can only be what we call the Old Testament, because that was the only “Word” that existed in the first century! Now that we have established the context of this chapter, the rest of it is pretty easy to understand. The dispute was not in regards to daily living, but rather, it was about a difference of opinion in regards to how Gentiles are saved. It is established that the only way anyone is saved, Jew or Gentile, is by Grace through Faith. As far as the Law goes, they learned the rest every Sabbath as they attended Synagogue with the Jews.

This situation in Acts 15 is exactly the same scenario we see going on in Paul’s book to the Galatians. If you read through the entire book, in context, you see that Paul’s point in Galatians is that the Torah of God cannot save anyone, and if anyone is going to let these Judaizers convince them to get circumcised in order to be “saved”, then they are falling into the same religious bondage that they were in when they were in pagan idolatry. The argument that is being made is that keeping the Law for justification (salvation) is baseless, man-made, and does not find itself in the heart of the Father. Thus, if anyone seeks to keep any part of the Law for Salvation, they are therefore required to keep the whole Law perfectly, because the only way to have salvation outside of the Grace of Messiah is to be completely sinless (which is impossible). Paul never once speaks negatively about God’s Law in regards to daily living. In fact, he very unambiguously states in Romans 3:31, that although we are saved by faith, it does not make the Law void, thus, we are to uphold the Law! As one examines scripture in context, it becomes obvious that whenever it appears on the surface that Paul is referring to God’s Torah itself as bondage, he is always speaking within the context of it being misused and misunderstood by people as a means to earn salvation.

I hope enjoyed this article! Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Shalom!

About davewilber

Hey, I'm Dave. I'm 23 years old. I love playing/listening to music. I love talking about theology/religion/politics with people who are smarter than I am. Most of all, I love YHWH and all of my friends. Visit me on facebook at facebook.com/davewilber
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4 Responses to Acts 15 – Does the Law (Torah) apply to Gentiles?

  1. carrie Hodges says:

    may God Bless you for your faithful pursuit of the truth. I have shared this blog with friends, thank you.

  2. Haylea says:

    Can I get an AMEN!! Couldn’t have said it better myself. It’s beautiful to see how YHWH has graciously planned all this out where everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, can have salvation through faith and have His loving instructions to follow in their daily life: Torah. It’s His personal love note to us: “These are my vows to you because I love you; keep them and love Me too!!” I think it’s beautiful. Even us outsiders have been brought close through Yeshua’s blood, grafted in to the commonwealth of Israel. Thank you, Father! Great article! With the small understanding that He has given me, I thought it was spot-on. :D

  3. Well said, brother! It’s a shame such simple truths are rejected as “heresy” by so many believers. Keep fighting the good fight.

  4. Charlene says:

    I thank you for taking time to write this article and thank the Lord for letting me find this study. It’s of much use and I will br translating word by word to Spanich so i can give a study at my local congragation so they can start learning about the Jewish roots and the commands that will make help us proke the non believing Jew to jealousy and want what we have, Christ our Savior!

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