Chapter 14 saw the return of Saul and Barnabas from their first missionary journey. They were sent out by the Christian church in Antioch of Syria a couple of years after they established the church. They went first to the island of Cyprus where they preached in the synagogues as they crossed the island. In the city of Paphos, the governor of the island and his household were saved, encouraging the spread of Christianity throughout the island.
What other significant event happened on Cyprus? Bar-Jesus is blinded by Paul. Saul becomes Paul, and he begins to demonstrate his apostolic abilities for the first time.
From Cyprus they crossed over the Mediterranean Sea to the North, landing at Perga of Pamphilia where John Mark, who had traveled with them from Antioch, left them and returned home. From there, Paul (who was sick) continued North into what is now Eastern Turkey to the cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Churches were started in these cities among considerable controversy when the non-believing Jews tried to stop Paul's preaching. Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, but miraculously recovered. After tracing their steps back to the Mediterranean, they sailed for Antioch, ending the missionary Journey. (Acts 13-14)
When we came to the end of chapter 14, it described the end of an abundantly successful mission, and we had the impression that all was well. The word was advancing. But then Luke tells us that there is an attack upon the Gospel:
And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." (Acts 15:1 NASB)
Here we see that men from Judea are teaching what is required by God for eternal salvation. They are teaching that God requires circumcision. Are they right? How do you know? A question that we all must be able to answer is: What must I do to be saved? This is a critical issue. We can be wrong on a lot of things, but we don't want to be wrong here. If you talk to ten different people on how a man is saved, you'll get ten different responses. People will say, "You must: believe, repent, confess, commit, be baptized, join the church." According to some, you even have to have a futuristic eschatology in order to be saved. R.C. Sproul Jr. said that Preterism is a "fatal-damnable heresy," which means if your eschatology is wrong, you cannot be saved, you're under God's wrath.
This is the Gospel under siege. They are saying you can't be saved unless you are circumcised. Who is saying this? It was the "Judaizers." The Judaizers were a group of people who went around in the first century promoting Judaism. News had reached Judea of the many Gentiles who had become Christians and had not been circumcised. This had horrified many Jewish believers, especially many Pharisees who were believers, for they considered that it was not possible to be within God's salvation without being circumcised and keeping the whole Law of Moses. They were pushing Judaism on the believers. They were saying that in order to be a Christian, you must first come through the door of Judaism. You must be circumcised and keep the law. They were saying, "Yes, you must trust in Christ, but you also must keep the law."
Where do you suppose the Judaizers got their theology from? They got it from the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christianity mistakenly calls the Old Testament. Please understand this: Apart from understanding the First Testament, you will never completely understand the Second Testament. The writers of the Second Testament all suppose that their readers understood the First Testament.
Let's look at some background on Judaism and circumcision from the First Testament. The Jews believed that they alone were the people of God. Remember, for 1600 years God dealt solely with the Jewish nation. If you wanted to come to God, you had to come through Judaism. They believed that they maintained a covenant relationship with God which secured their salvation. The proof of their identity and belonging was a mark. They bore a mark as the children of Abraham naturally, which they thought affirmed their right to be called the children of God supernaturally. The Jews held on to that mark, and by it they assumed that they were secure with God. That mark is called circumcision. To the Jews of Jesus' and Paul's day, circumcision was a very important mark.
The Talmud was a collection of Jewish writings that the Jews wrongly came to hold more sacred than the Scripture. The Talmud said, "The commandment of circumcision is more important than all the injunctions of Scripture." That shows the value they placed on circumcision. The Jews believed that if a Jew was so vile and so evil that he was sent to Hell, before he could enter Hell, there were angels at the gate that removed his circumcision. The most important thing a Jew could do to secure his relationship with God was to be circumcised.
The English word "circumcision" comes from a Latin word which means: "to cut around," it describes the original Biblical reference to a surgery that was performed on little boys and often on adult males. The simple surgery removes the foreskin from the male organ. Where did the idea of circumcision come from? God Himself established the practice:
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; 2 and I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; (Genesis 12:1-2 NASB)
This is the Abrahamic Covenant. God promises to make of Abraham a great nation. Then in chapter 15, the covenant is inaugurated. God meets with Abraham:
And he said, "O Lord GOD, how may I know that I shall possess it?" (Genesis 15:8 NASB)
Abraham is asking, "God, how do I know that your promise will take place?"
So He said to him, "Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. 11 And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. 12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 And God said to Abram, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 "But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 "And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. 16 "Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." 17 And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:9-17 NASB)
When people made a covenant, they would take animals and split them in half and the two parties would walk in between the pieces and shake hands. The idea of walking between the dead animals was: "May God do this to us if we break this covenant." This covenant was different, Abraham wasn't involved. God walked through the pieces Himself because this was a unilateral covenant. God promises Abraham that he would be a blessing. In this Abrahamic covenant is the promise of a Redeemer. That Redeemer is Christ. That is how Abraham is going to be a blessing to all nations through Christ. The book of Galatians makes it clear that this promise was in reference to the coming Redeemer, Christ. This is the Abrahamic covenant. Then in chapter 17, God gives Abraham a symbol of the covenant so he won't forget the promise that was made:
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. 2 "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly." (Genesis 17:1-2 NASB)
This is quite a promise to a man who is 99 years old and has no children:
And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, 4 "As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 "No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 "And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. 7 "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:3-7 NASB)
There is the promise of the Redeemer. This is to be an everlasting covenant, it will never end.
"And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." 9 God said further to Abraham, "Now 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 among you shall be circumcised. 11 "And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. (Genesis 17:8-11 NASB)
God has already made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. So we have two covenants. This covenant is a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant:
"And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. 13 "A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 "But an uncircumcised male 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 17:12-14 NASB)
To be "cut off" meant to be put to death or physically separated from the people. He was a physical Jew. but if he was uncircumcisied he was cut off and had no right to go to Jerusalem to worship. If you can't worship God, you're spiritually dead:
"But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it. 49 "The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you." (Exodus 12:48-49 NASB)
In order for one to participate in the Passover meal, which every Israelite male was commanded to do, one had to be circumcised. Strangers (Gentiles, for all practical purposes) could participate, but only after being circumcised.
There are not many commands for circumcision in the Bible, because the people did it. They were very good at doing the outward things. Look at how dedicated they were to physical circumcision:
Now it came about when all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard how the LORD had dried up the waters of the Jordan before the sons of Israel until they had crossed, that their hearts melted, and there was no spirit in them any longer, because of the sons of Israel. (Joshua 5:1 NASB)
You must see this. The children of Israel were feared by the surrounding nations. Then verse 2 says, "At that time." At what time? At the time when all the nations were scared to death of Israel.
At that time the LORD said to Joshua, "Make for yourself flint knives and circumcise again the sons of Israel the second time." 3 So Joshua made himself flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth. (Joshua 5:2-3 NASB)
We're talking about over a million people at one time being circumcised. They had just spent forty years in the wilderness, and all the generation that was circumcised died off. And they didn't circumcise the new generation, which showed their spiritual apathy. Now they are in the new land. and God says to circumcise them all. Just to show you how seriously they took this, they circumcised their whole army. When an adult male is circumcised, he is incapacitated for days. They incapacitated their whole army in the midst of enemy territory. Circumcision was taken so seriously by them that they circumcised their whole army in the midst of the enemy, which made them unable to fight, in order to obey God's command.
Circumcision was to be much more than just an outward sign. It was to be the outward sign of an inward reality, but they lost the true meaning and kept only the outward sign. They missed the spiritual aspect because all they focused on was the physical. In Isaiah there are many promises of restored Israel, which speak of the Church. But the Judaizers saw these passages at strictly physical.
The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2 Now it will come about that In the last days, The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways, And that we may walk in His paths." For the law will go forth from Zion, And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:1-3 NASB)
Isaiah is saying that when the kingdom is established, the nations will flow to Jerusalem. The Law, the Torah, goes forth from Zion, which is Jerusalem. They saw this as physical Jerusalem.
In chapter 52, which is a prediction of the New Jerusalem, Isaiah writes:
Awake, awake, Clothe yourself in your strength, O Zion; Clothe yourself in your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city. For the uncircumcised and the unclean Will no more come into you. 2 Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; Loose yourself from the chains around your neck, O captive daughter of Zion. (Isaiah 52:1-2 NASB)
I think we could understand that this could be taken to mean that only those physically circumcised could enter the kingdom. In this chapter we also have the promise of the calling of the Gentiles into the restored kingdom.
So I think you can see how the Judaizers may have thought that Isaiah said that when the kingdom is established, Jerusalem will be the center, and the uncircumcised will not enter this Jerusalem. So they taught that you must be circumcised to be saved. So lying behind the Judaizer's theology was the promise of the restoration of Israel. So really, the Judaizer's theology is, at its core, an issue of the nature of the restoration of Israel. They saw it as physical, but this is speaking of a spiritual kingdom and a spiritual circumcision. Look at what Jeremiah says:
"Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My wrath go forth like fire And burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds." (Jeremiah 4:4 NASB)
Here God is talking to men who have been physically circumcised and says, "Circumcise... your heart." This spiritual aspect is seen in:
"Behold, the days are coming," declares the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised (Jeremiah 9:25 NASB)
How can they be circumcised and yet be uncircumcised? They were physically circumcised, but not spiritually circumcised. Look at what Paul told the Romans:
For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29 NASB)
Circumcision is that which is of the heart. They missed the reality and clung to the sign.
Physical circumcision pointed to man's spiritual need. Nowhere, or at no point, is man's depravity more manifest than in the procreative act. We know man is a sinner by what he says and by what he does; we know he's a sinner by the attitudes that he carries. How do we know that man is a sinner at the very base of his character? How do we know that man is a sinner at the root of his existence? By what he creates, whatever comes from the loins of man is wicked. So nowhere is depravity so manifest: When man procreates, he produces a sinner. Remember, Jesus Christ had no human father, He was sinless.
The male organ then is the point at which human depravity is most demonstrated. You see the nature of sin passed on to the next generation. When God demanded that the male be circumcised, He was giving them a symbol that the outward part of man's procreative organ was cleansed to remind them that man needed to be cleansed of sin at the deepest root of his being. Man needed a spiritual surgery to cleanse him. Every time they circumcised a person they were reminding themselves of the fact that man was a wicked sinner and in need of a cleansing. Even the blood shed that occurred in circumcision symbolized the need for sacrifice to accomplish that cleansing. So there was even a picture of the pain and sacrifice needed to cleanse the sinner in circumcision.
The symbol means nothing without the reality. The Jews were circumcised on the outside, but not the inside. Circumcision is the external symbol depicting the need for a total cleansing from sin, but Israel had reduced it to a tribal tatoo. They felt as long as they were circumcised, they had God's blessing. Then Paul comes along preaching grace to the Gentiles. Paul is teaching that salvation is by faith alone. So the Jews are getting very upset, and they trouble the new churches with Old Covenant ceremony.
Let's look at the book of Galatians, which was written to combat the Judastic heresy:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9 NASB)
Paul says that he is preaching the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. If anyone preaches any other Gospel, if they add anything to faith, let them be accursed:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. (Galatians 5:2 NASB)
What he is saying here is, "Christ plus circumcision equals nothing." You cannot add anything to faith. If you do, you destroy faith. If you think in order to be saved you've got to be circumcised, then Christ won't do you any good because you're believing in salvation by works:
And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:3-4 NASB)
If you are trying to do anything to earn your salvation, you have fallen from the principle of grace.
So what does this mean to us? We don't know of any Judaizers. Well we might not think we know any, but they're still around. The issue here is the Gospel! From its earliest days, the Gospel has been attacked by those who would destroy it by adding to it. Two thousand years later we face the same battle. Jesus warned of people who would distort the Gospel in the "Sermon on the Mount":
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide, and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. 14 "For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14 NASB)
These are restrictive terms, one only enters by faith plus nothing else, and by faith in Christ and no one else. That is narrow. There are all kinds of people telling you of different ways to get to heaven, but there is only one way:
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me. (John 14:6 NASB)
"And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 NASB)
It is a narrow and compressed way that can be entered only through Jesus Christ.
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15 NASB)
This might cause you to picture a wolf hiding under a sheep's skin. But the idea of sheep's clothing is most likely referring to a wool garment, the clothing of a prophet. There are false prophets out there selling tickets to the broad road. The Gospel is faith in Christ plus nothing. If you add anything to the Gospel, you destroy the Gospel.
In 1994, a number of Evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders signed the document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," which sought to emphasize what Catholics and Evangelical Protestants believe in common and to encourage greater cooperation between the two camps.
The Promise Keepers movement has also encouraged this movement toward unity between Catholics and Protestants. One of the seven promises that every Promise Keeper commits himself to is: "reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of Biblical unity."
Billy Graham for many years has also played down any differences between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. He has said, "I have no quarrel with the Roman Catholic Church." Speaking of the difference between Evangelicalism and Catholicism, he said, "I don't think the differences are important as far as personal salvation is concerned."
This is serious stuff, because the Catholic Church is modern day Judaism. They preach another Gospel. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by God's grace through our faith. But the catch is, they say that we must add our works to our faith in order to bring the process of justification to completion. "The Canons" and "Decrees of Trent," which represent the official Catholic teaching to this day, state: "If any one says that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema." (Session 6, Canon 9)
In other words, the Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone, but that our good works must be added to that faith in order both to preserve and increase our right standing before God.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches precisely the same error as the Judaizers. They believe that a person is saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but they add, "Faith in Christ alone is not sufficient to save you; you must add to it your good works." And yet many in Christianity want to join hands with the Catholic Church.
Further, they pronounce anathema on the one who says that faith alone is sufficient to save. You must either believe their word or the word of the Apostle Paul. The two are completely opposed to one another.
Don't drift into the postmodern thinking that truth is relative and doesn't matter. Don't fall into the simplistic error that love, not sound doctrine, is the main thing, and that somehow we are unloving if we hold firmly to the Biblical doctrine of salvation. Truth matters, so let's stand up for it, let's defend it, let's proclaim it.
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