The issue of circumcision goes before the governing body
Based on Acts 15:1-12
1-3. (a) What developments threaten to divide the early Christian congregation? (b) How may we benefit from studying this account in the book of Acts?
ELATED, Paul and Barnabas have just returned to the Syrian city of Antioch from their first missionary tour. They are thrilled that Jehovah has “opened to the nations the door to faith.” (Acts 14:26, 27) Indeed, Antioch itself is abuzz with the good news and “a great number” of Gentiles are being added to the congregation here.—Acts 11:20-26.
2 The exciting news about this influx soon reaches Judea. But instead of bringing joy to all, this development forces into prominence the ongoing debate about circumcision. What should be the relationship between Jewish and non-Jewish believers, and how should the latter view the Mosaic Law? The issue causes dissension that becomes so serious that it threatens to split the Christian congregation into factions. How will this matter be resolved?
3 As we consider this account in the book of Acts, we will learn many valuable lessons. These may help us to act wisely should potentially divisive issues arise in our day.
“Unless You Get Circumcised” (Acts 15:1)
4. What wrong views were certain believers promoting, and what question does this raise?
4 The disciple Luke wrote: “Certain men came down [to Antioch] from Judea and began to teach the brothers: ‘Unless you get circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1) Whether these “certain men” had been Pharisees before converting to Christianity is not stated. At the very least, they appear to have been influenced by that Jewish sect’s legalistic thinking. Also, they may have wrongly claimed to speak for the apostles and older men in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:23, 24) Why, though, were Jewish believers still promoting circumcision some 13 years after the apostle Peter, as directed by God, had welcomed uncircumcised Gentiles into the Christian congregation?*—Acts 10:24-29, 44-48.
5, 6. (a) Why may some Jewish Christians have wanted to cling to circumcision? (b) Was the covenant of circumcision part of the Abrahamic covenant? Explain. (See footnote.)
5 The reasons may have been many. For one thing, male circumcision had been instituted by Jehovah himself, and it was a sign of a special relationship with him. Predating the Law covenant but later becoming part of it, circumcision began with Abraham and his household.* (Lev. 12:2, 3) Under the Mosaic Law, even aliens had to be circumcised before they could enjoy certain privileges, such as eating the Passover meal. (Ex. 12:43, 44, 48, 49) Indeed, in the Jewish mind, for a man to be uncircumcised was to be unclean, contemptible.—Isa. 52:1.
6 Thus, it required faith and humility on the part of Jewish believers to adjust to revealed truth. The Law covenant had been replaced by the new covenant, so birth as a Jew no longer automatically made one a member of God’s people. And for Jewish Christians who lived in Jewish communities—as did the believers in Judea—it took courage to confess Christ and to accept as fellow believers Gentiles who had not been circumcised.—Jer. 31:31-33; Luke 22:20.
7. What truths had “certain men” failed to grasp?
7 Of course, God’s standards had not changed. Reflecting this truth, the new covenant incorporated the spirit of the Mosaic Law. (Matt. 22:36-40) In regard to circumcision, for example, Paul later wrote: “He is a Jew who is one on the inside, and his circumcision is that of the heart by spirit, and not by a written code.” (Rom. 2:29; Deut. 10:16) The “certain men” from Judea had not grasped these truths but asserted that God had never revoked the law of circumcision. Would they listen to reason?
“Dissension and Disputing” (Acts 15:2)
8. Why was the issue of circumcision taken to the governing body in Jerusalem?
8 Luke continued: “When there had occurred no little dissension and disputing by Paul and Barnabas with them [the “certain men”], they [the elders] arranged for Paul and Barnabas and some others of them to go up to the apostles and older men in Jerusalem regarding this dispute.”* (Acts 15:2) The “dissension and disputing” reflected strong feelings and firm convictions on both sides, and the congregation in Antioch could not resolve it. In the interests of peace and unity, the congregation wisely arranged to take the question to “the apostles and older men in Jerusalem,” who made up the governing body. What can we learn from the elders in Antioch?
9, 10. In what way did the brothers in Antioch as well as Paul and Barnabas set a fine example for us today?
9 One valuable lesson we learn is that we need to trust God’s organization. Consider: The brothers in Antioch knew that the governing body was made up entirely of Christians of Jewish background. Yet, they trusted that body to settle the question of circumcision in harmony with the Scriptures. Why? The congregation was confident that Jehovah would direct matters by means of his holy spirit and the Head of the Christian congregation, Jesus Christ. (Matt. 28:18, 20; Eph. 1:22, 23) When serious issues arise today, let us imitate the fine example of the believers in Antioch by trusting God’s organization and its Governing Body of anointed Christians.
10 We are also reminded of the value of humility and patience. Paul and Barnabas had been personally appointed by holy spirit to go to the nations, yet they did not invoke that authority to settle the issue of circumcision then and there in Antioch. (Acts 13:2, 3) Moreover, Paul later wrote: “I went up [to Jerusalem] as a result of a revelation”—indicating divine direction in the matter. (Gal. 2:2) Elders today strive to have the same humble, patient attitude when potentially divisive questions arise. Instead of being contentious, they look to Jehovah by consulting the Scriptures and the instruction and guidance provided by the faithful slave.—Phil. 2:2, 3.
11, 12. Why is it important to wait on Jehovah?
11 In some instances, we may have to wait for Jehovah to shed light on a certain matter. Remember that the brothers in Paul’s time had to wait until about 49 C.E.—some 13 years from the time of Cornelius’ anointing in 36 C.E.—before Jehovah brought the issue of whether Gentiles should be circumcised to a resolution. Why so long? Perhaps God wanted to allow sufficient time for sincere Jews to adjust to such a major change in viewpoint. After all, the termination of the 1,900-year-old covenant of circumcision made with their beloved forefather Abraham was no minor matter!—John 16:12.
12 What a privilege it is to be instructed and molded by our patient and kind heavenly Father! The results are always good and always to our advantage. (Isa. 48:17, 18; 64:8) So let us never proudly push ahead with our own ideas or react negatively to organizational changes or to adjusted explanations of certain scriptures. (Eccl. 7:8) If you detect even a hint of such a tendency in yourself, why not meditate prayerfully on the timely principles found in Acts chapter 15?*
13. How can we reflect Jehovah’s patience in our ministry?
13 The need for patience may arise when we study the Bible with people who find it hard to abandon cherished false beliefs or unscriptural customs. In such cases, we may need to allow a reasonable amount of time for God’s spirit to work on the heart of the student. (1 Cor. 3:6, 7) Also, we do well to make the subject a matter of prayer. In one way or another and at the right time, God will help us to know the wise course to take.—1 John 5:14.
They Related Encouraging Experiences “in Detail” (Acts 15:3-5)
14, 15. How did the congregation in Antioch honor Paul, Barnabas, and the other travelers, and how did their presence prove to be a blessing to fellow believers?
14 Luke’s narrative continues: “After being conducted partway by the congregation, these men continued on their way through both Phoenicia and Samaria, relating in detail the conversion of people of the nations, and they were causing great joy to all the brothers.” (Acts 15:3) That the congregation conducted Paul, Barnabas, and the other travelers partway was an act of Christian love that honored them, showing that the congregation wished them God’s blessing. Again, what a fine example the brothers in Antioch set for us! Do you show honor to your spiritual brothers and sisters, “especially those [older men] who work hard in speaking and teaching”?—1 Tim. 5:17.
15 En route, the travelers proved to be a blessing to fellow Christians in Phoenicia and Samaria by sharing with them “in detail” experiences about the work in the Gentile field. The listeners possibly included Jewish believers who had fled to those regions after Stephen’s martyrdom. Likewise today, reports of Jehovah’s blessing on the disciple-making work are a source of encouragement to our brothers, especially those undergoing trials. Do you benefit fully from such reports by attending Christian meetings, assemblies, and conventions as well as by reading the experiences and life stories published in our literature?
16. What shows that circumcision had become a major issue?
16 After traveling south some 350 miles (550 km), the delegation from Antioch finally reached their destination. Luke wrote: “On arriving in Jerusalem they were kindly received by the congregation and the apostles and the older men, and they recounted the many things God had done by means of them.” (Acts 15:4) In response, however, “some of those of the sect of the Pharisees that had believed rose up from their seats and said: ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and charge them to observe the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5) Clearly, the question of the circumcision of non-Jewish Christians had become a major issue, and it had to be settled.
“The Apostles and the Older Men” Met Together (Acts 15:6-12)
17. Who made up the governing body in Jerusalem, and why may “the older men” have been included?
17 “With those consulting together there is wisdom,” says Proverbs 13:10. In harmony with that sound principle, “the apostles and the older men gathered together to see about [the question of circumcision].” (Acts 15:6) “The apostles and the older men” acted in a representative way for the entire Christian congregation, just as the Governing Body does today. Why were “the older men” serving along with the apostles? Remember that the apostle James had been executed, and at least for a period, the apostle Peter had been imprisoned. Might similar eventualities befall other apostles? The presence of other qualified anointed men would help to ensure the orderly continuance of oversight.
18, 19. What powerful words did Peter speak, and what conclusion should his listeners have reached?
18 Luke continued: “Now when much disputing had taken place, Peter rose and said . . . : ‘Men, brothers, you well know that from early days God made the choice among you that through my mouth people of the nations should hear the word of the good news and believe; and God, who knows the heart, bore witness by giving them the holy spirit, just as he did to us also. And he made no distinction at all between us and them, but purified their hearts by faith.’” (Acts 15:7-9) According to one reference work, the Greek word translated “disputing” in verse 7 also denotes “a seeking,” ‘a questioning.’ Apparently, the brothers had honest differences of opinion, which they openly expressed.
19 Peter’s powerful words reminded all that he himself was present when the first uncircumcised Gentiles—Cornelius and his household—were anointed with holy spirit in 36 C.E. So if Jehovah had ceased making a distinction between Jew and non-Jew, by what authority should humans do otherwise? Moreover, faith in Christ, not compliance with the Mosaic Law, purifies a believer’s heart.—Gal. 2:16.
20. How were the promoters of circumcision “making a test of God”?
20 On the basis of the unassailable witness of both the word of God and the holy spirit, Peter concluded: “Now, therefore, why are you making a test of God by imposing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our forefathers nor we were capable of bearing? On the contrary, we trust to get saved through the undeserved kindness of the Lord Jesus in the same way as those people also.” (Acts 15:10, 11) Promoters of circumcision were, in fact, “making a test of God,” or ‘straining his patience,’ as another translation renders it. They were trying to impose on Gentiles a code that the Jews themselves could not fully comply with and that therefore condemned them to death. (Gal. 3:10) Instead, Peter’s Jewish listeners should have been thankful for God’s undeserved kindness expressed through Jesus.
21. Barnabas and Paul contributed what to the discussion?
21 Evidently, Peter’s words struck home, for “the entire multitude became silent.” Thereafter, Barnabas and Paul related “the many signs and portents that God did through them among the nations.” (Acts 15:12) Now, at last, the apostles and older men were in a position to evaluate all the evidence and make a decision that clearly reflected the will of God on the matter of circumcision.
22-24. (a) How does the Governing Body today follow the example of the early governing body? (b) How can all elders show respect for theocratic authority?
22 Today, too, when the members of the Governing Body meet, they look to God’s Word for direction and pray earnestly for holy spirit. (Ps. 119:105; Matt. 7:7-11) To that end, each member of the Governing Body receives an agenda ahead of time so that he can give the items prayerful thought. (Prov. 15:28) At the meeting, these anointed brothers freely and respectfully express themselves. The Bible is used frequently during the discussions.
23 Congregation elders should imitate that example. And if after consideration at an elders’ meeting a serious matter remains unresolved, the body may consult the local branch office or its appointed representatives, such as traveling overseers. The branch, in turn, may write to the Governing Body if necessary.
24 Yes, Jehovah blesses those who respect the theocratic arrangement and who display humility, loyalty, and patience. As we shall see in the following chapter, the God-given rewards for doing so are genuine peace, spiritual prosperity, and Christian unity.
See the box “The Teachings of the Judaizers.”
The covenant of circumcision was not part of the Abrahamic covenant, which remains in force to this day. The Abrahamic covenant went into effect in 1943 B.C.E. when Abraham (then Abram) crossed the Euphrates on his way to Canaan. He was then 75 years of age. The covenant of circumcision was made later, in 1919 B.C.E., when Abraham was 99 years old.—Gen. 12:1-8; 17:1, 9-14; Gal. 3:17.
Titus, a Greek Christian who later became a trusted companion and emissary of Paul, appears to have been a member of the delegation. (Gal. 2:1; Titus 1:4) This man was a fine example of an uncircumcised Gentile anointed by holy spirit.—Gal. 2:3.
See the box “Jehovah’s Witnesses Build Their Beliefs on the Bible.”