This passage of scripture seems to be one that gets bought up with us time and time again. And it is an important passage to consider! These are my thoughts based on the reading of these scriptures within the whole counsel of the Word of God. Please bear with me; there are alot of thoughts I have in this little brain and big heart of mine and I would love to share them with you! Please don't believe what I write here; please check it out for yourself in the Word of God; the Scriptures!
The summary first and then some of my more in-depth discoveries and thoughts about these things.
1. Circumcision has always been and still remains the sign of our eternal covenental relationship with God. It was never designed to save us. The blood and sacrifice of our Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) did this! The oral law (man-made traditions) of the Pharisees teaches that a man must be circumcised or re-circumcised in order to be accepted by man and God.
2. The apostles say not to put a yoke on the necks of the believers that no one has ever been able to bear. The Torah of God (His loving fatherly instructions to his children) have never been described in the Word as being this yoke or burden. In fact it is described as the exact opposite to a burden or yoke! What burdens a man is the oral law (and its thousand upon thousands of man made instructions), sin + guilt and also physical slavery, according to the Word. We can tell from the Scriptures that the 'yoke' the apostles are referring to here in Acts 15 is the oral laws of the elders.
3. The council decides that the new converts should not be weighed down by man's traditions but instead should abstain from 4 things which are all apart of the Torah of God. It is proof that the Torah of God had not been 'done away with' in the first century church. They were told to do these 4 things BECAUSE "Moses (knickname for the 'Torah of God' since it was given to Moses) IS PREACHED IN EVERY SYNAGOGUE ON EVERY SABBATH". They would learn the rest of the Torah as the new converts continued to attend meeting together weekly on the sabbath and would hear the Torah being read aloud then.
Ok. Let's kick off by looking at the first part of chapter 15.
"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, ACCORDING TO THE CUSTOM TAUGHT BY MOSES, you CANNOT BE SAVED"."
Just as a side note here, I wanted to touch briefly on 3 things.
1. Circumcision was FIRST given as a sign of the covenant between Yah (God) and his people to ABRAHAM not to Moses even though it is reitterated in the Torah. My point here is just that it was given BEFORE the Mosaic law as a sign of the covenant that man enters into with God.
2. In the Aramaic, the very first part of this passage actually reads, "unless you are circumcised in the MANNER OF THE LAW" (this seems to be addressing the different types of circumcision according to the oral law of the Pharisees).
3. This circumcision party that was there stirring the pot among the believers were saying THIS WAS A SALVATION ISSUE! It is still a sign of the covenant between Yah and man but it was never and will never be designed to SAVE someone!!!
So, with those little tidbits out of the way, we see that the beginning of this whole debate begins with the 'circumcision party' saying that in order to BE SAVED the believers must be circumcised. In other words, they are saying that in order for a person to enter into covenant with The Most High Yah (God), a person HAD to be circumcised (or re-circumcised) AS IS STILL THE PRACTICE TODAY in much of Judaism. There are three types of circumcision or re-circumcision that a man must undertake in order to be accepted into the community of believers in Judaism (which remember often teaches that the oral law (traditions of men) and the Torah (instructions of God) were both given at Mt Sinai even though they were not! Three types of circumcision are the HATAFAT DAM BRIT, METZITZAH AND THE MILAH L'SHEM GIUR. These were REQUIRED for different men for varying reasons as part of the ORAL LAW of the PHARISEES and as i said earlier are still required today for acceptance into the community of 'believers'.
Ok, back to Acts 15 and the council. The apostles and elders meet to discuss what the new converts should be doing, how they should be living. They agree that Yehovah (God) has not witheld salvation from those not naturally born of Israel (ie: the Gentiles). They also acknowledge that the 'party of the Pharisees' (verse 5) are "trying to put God to the test by PUTTING ON THE NECKS OF THE DISCIPLES A YOKE THAT NEITHER WE NOR OUR FATHERS HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BEAR" (verse 10).
Ok. Most of us have grown up believing (or being taught) that this verse above refers to the Torah (or the Law/instructions that Yah gave to Moses). If that is the case, then we would see time and time again, the Torah being referred to as being a 'YOKE' or as being 'BURDENSOME' or as being something that 'NO ONE CAN BEAR'. Do we EVER see this? Is the body of instructions that our loving God Himself gave to His children EVER referred to im this manner?
You can check it out for youself and please do, but the TORAH IS NOT EVER REFERRED TO IN THIS WAY in the SCRIPTURES!
Here are some verses that show this.
When the Torah Instructions are given to Yah's (God's) people, He Himself says, "Now what I am commanding you today is NOT TOO DIFFICULT (or burdensome in other translations) for you or beyond your reach (Deuteronomy 30:11) No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it" (Deut 30:14)
In the book of Nehemiah, when the Torah has been recovered after so many years, it is said of the 'commands and ordinaces' of the law, that "a man will LIVE if he obeys them". If they brought death and burden, how could Nehemiah say that a man will LIVE if he obeys them? They are life giving!!!
King David, "the man after God's own heart" describes the Torah as... "righteous laws" (psalm 119:106) and says, "I rejoice in following your statutes" (psalm 119:14). He also says, "My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times" (psalm 119:20) Why would he say that about something that was 'burdensome' or that brought 'a curse of death'? Why would a "man after God's own heart" be CONSUMED WITH LONGING for God's LAWS AT ALL TIMES if he was just being a legalist? No! He was called a man after God's own heart because He walked humbly with God and upheld the Torah! He delighted in it! He loved Yah (God) and loved the Torah and wanted to walk in it with Him even when he acknowledged his challenges and difficulties and downfalls.
He says this in Psalm 19 (verses 7-11)..."The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the LORD are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward".
All this again from the "man after God's own heart"! He calls the Torah perfect, refreshing for the soul, he calls it trustworthy and wise, right and a joy-bringer! He says they are radiant and give light!!! He declares that the Torah instructions are firm and ALL of them are righteous, they are precious and sweet and in keeping them there is GREAT REWARD! Nowhere does David say that they are a yoke around his neck that he can not bear! In fact he says the exact opposite!!!
What about the New Testament? You might be thinking that it might say that in the 'old' but not in the 'new'? At the time of writing the letters in the New Testament, the New Testament didn't exist and so they used the Old Testament Scriptures as their foundation for Truth! (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Ok, so New Testament...Check out what Stephen the martyr says of the law of God. When he recalls God giving the law to Moses, he says that "he received LIVING WORDS TO PASS ON TO US" (Acts 7:38). Living words! Not words of death and bondage! And this was after Yeshua (Jesus) died! He still refers to the instructions of Yehovah (God) being the Torah as LIVING WORDS TO PASS ON TO US!
Paul refers to the Torah as being "holy, righteous and good" (Romans 7:12) and proclaims that in his "inner being I DELIGHT in God's law" (Romans 7:22).
1 John 5:2 says, "This is how we know that we love the children of God; by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to OBEY HIS COMMANDS. AND HIS COMMANDS ARE NOT BURDENSOME, for everyone born of God overcomes the world".
So just play along here for a second with me and imagine that the Torah of God (God's loving instructions to us for our daily living and worship) is not the burdensome thing that we've always imagined.
If they are not talking about the Torah of God being the 'yoke' and 'burden' then what are they be referring to?
Well Yeshua (Jesus) Himself tell us. Let's look at His words in Matthew 23. He is condemning the hypocritical ways the Pharisees are living; their hearts and their actions are not lining up and Yeshua (Jesus) is calling them on it. He says, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you (they 'told' the Torah of God from 'Moses' seat' in the synagogues). But do not do what they do (the oral law) for they do not practice what they preach (Torah of God). They tie up HEAVY LOADS (oral law) and PUT THEM ON THE MEN'S SHOULDERS, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them".
That is HUGE! Jesus is saying that they are teaching Moses (Torah of God) from Moses' seat in the synagogue and yet they (the pharisees and teachers of the law) aren't even practicing what they preach! His warning to his disciples and the crowd gathered there was to DO what they TELL you (because they were telling the people about the Torah of God) but don't live the way they were because even though they were telling the people torah, they were instead living out the oral law of men and this is what Yeshua (Jesus) describes as THE HEAVY LOAD ON MEN'S SHOULDERS!
Even in Acts when Stephen is being stoned to death, it is because he says directly to the Pharisees that they 'RECEIVED THE LAW (which he already referred to as LIVING WORDS (Acts 7:38)) that was put into effect through angels BUT HAVE NOT OBEYED IT". And this is what he was killed for; for pointing out to the High Priest and Sanhedrin (council) that they had NOT put the Torah of God into practice because we know that what they were practicing were their own MAN MADE traditions (Mark 7:4, Mark 7:8-9, Mark 7:13, Galatians 1:14, Matthew 15:6, Colossians 2:8).
Other than the ORAL LAW being referred to as a burden (which by the way is what is referred to Galatians 5 in context), other things Scripture shows us is a burden is 'sin' and 'guilt'. We can read this in Psalm 38:3-4, Isaiah 43:23, Lamentations 1:14. Physical slavery is also referred to as this like when the Israelites were in Egypt under Pharoah's rule - Psalm 81:6 and Isaiah 14:25.
Ok, once again back to Acts 15 and the council. I've presented so far the case that the Pharisees came trying to say that in order for a man to enter into a covenental relationship to be SAVED through, he had to be circumcised or re-circumcised according to the traditions of the elders. We know it is this because in the context of this passage and in the context of what was historically happening in the first century church (seen from other New Testament letters), the Pharisees were laying on the backs of men the oral traditions that they nor their forefathers could bear.
So the elders in the new church after Yeshua's (Jesus') resurrection, decide that they should recommend that the believers do the following (Acts 15:20)...
1. Abstain from food polluted by idols
2. Abstain from sexual immorality
3. Abstain from the meat of strangled animals
4. Abstain from blood
Where do the apostles get these from? Did they make these instructions up? No! They got them from Torah.
You can find them here:
1. Exodus 32:4-6, Leviticus 7:17
2. Leviticus 18
3. (Strangulation of an animal does not allow an it to be bled properly and the Torah commands against the eating of blood ) Genesis 9:4
4. Leviticus 17:10-14, Deuteronomy 12:23-25
So the 'New Testament' church forefathers are giving the new believers 4 starting points. Most of these new believers are coming out of pagan religions where these 4 things were rife!
So they are like starting points for them. We know that because the very next verse (Acts 15:21) says,
"For Moses (a knickname for the Torah of God since it was given to Moses) has been preached in every city from the earliest of times AND IS READ in the synagogues on EVERY SABBATH". Why would they say this if:
a) they were not meeting on the Sabbath anymore and
b) they were saying these 4 tTorah commands were the only instructions they had to keep?
I believe it is clear from these scriptures that these 4 torah instructions are like starting points for the new believers. They would hear all the rest of the Torah of God being preached every Sabbath anyway and they would get to know how to walk in His ways as they slowly journeyed along with Yah (God).
Well, there you go...my thoughts on Acts 15.
Would love to hear your thoughts too!
Many blessings as you seek Him in Spirit and in Truth.
Love Lusi x