And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, [and said], Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
Note 1 at Ac 15:1: Although this same question had arisen earlier in the church (Ac 11:1-18), this was the first time the debate had actually caused a division among the disciples. This was the first doctrinal controversy in Christ's church. The same basic argument of Law versus grace raged throughout Paul's lifetime and are still at the bottom of the divisions we see in the church today.
Note 2 at Ac 15:1: To understand the Jews' contention over circumcision, we must understand a little about Old Testament circumcision and how the Jews had misinterpreted it.
The covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham in Ge 17:9-14. In Ge 17:14, the Lord said that any man who did not carry this sign of the covenant in his flesh was to be killed. This placed a great importance on the act of circumcision, but as Paul explained in Ro 4:3-13, Abraham had already been justified by faith before he was circumcised. It was Abraham's faith that saved him (Ge 15:6) at least thirteen years before the Lord commanded him to be circumcised (Ge 17:24-26).
The Jews had focused on the outward act of obedience instead of the inward act of faith that caused Abraham to be obedient. This was the source of the contention between Jesus and the religious leaders as well. They emphasized all the outward acts that the Lord had commanded the Jews to do and totally disregarded the motives of the heart (Mt 23:27-28). But Jesus was saying that if people would cleanse their hearts, then their actions would inevitably change too (see note 21 at Mt 23:26).
The truth of salvation by faith had been lost in Judaism, and even though many of the Jews had come to put faith in Jesus as their Savior, they were trying to mix together faith and the keeping of the commandments, as both being necessary for salvation.
Paul became God's champion for the doctrine of salvation by grace. Even Peter and Barnabas were struggling with this issue (Ga 2:11-21). Toward the end of his life, Peter wrote of Paul and said that his teachings were hard to understand; however, only those who were unlearned and unstable resisted them (2Pe 3:15-16).
This first church council, considering the issue of whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised, was really a matter of whether or not faith was to be the basis of salvation, or faith plus the keeping of the commandments. The Lord convinced the elders through Paul's testimony that circumcision (or the keeping of any other commandment) was not essential for salvation if faith in Jesus was present (Ro 3:28). This is the foundational truth of the New Testament and is the main doctrinal point of the New Testament books of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Hebrews.
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