Introduction: Times change, but God does not change. Is the Church
authorized to modify or reject the commands of God? My natural
reaction is an emphatic, “No!” But, our study this week shows that an
emphatic “No!” cannot always be correct. That should make every
serious student of the Bible a little anxious because it moves the
foundation of our beliefs from the solid rock of the Bible. Except
for this: it is the Bible that suggests the rules can change. Let’s
plunge into this important Bible study and see if we can correctly
understand God’s will!

  1. The Problem

    1. Read Acts 15:1. Is this a true statement? Remember that at
      this time the Bible consisted only of the Old Testament.
      (Read Genesis 17:9-10 and Genesis 17:12-14. This makes
      clear that circumcision applies to foreigners and those
      who are not the “offspring” of Abraham. The text says
      those who fail to be circumcised “will be cut off” because
      they have “broken” a covenant with God.)

    2. Read Acts 15:2. Why would Paul and Barnabas disagree with
      this clear statement of the Bible? (This looks like a
      practical problem to me. We have learned that converting
      the Gentiles was God’s plan. We studied two weeks ago
      about the acceptance of Cornelius and his household by the
      Holy Spirit. However, in none of those encounters did we
      find the Holy Spirit speaking against circumcision. Thus,
      the practical objection must be that it makes converting
      Gentiles more difficult.)

    3. Read Acts 15:3. Why are Paul and Barnabas traveling to
      Jerusalem? (They are advocates for the Gentiles and they
      are opposed to circumcision. They are headed for Jerusalem
      because that is the headquarters for the church. It is
      where the “apostles and elders” lived. The purpose of the
      trip is to ask them about this question.)

      1. Why go to the church leadership to consult when the
        Bible is clear on the issue? (Apparently, Paul and
        Barnabas and the believers in Antioch did not view it
        that way.)

      2. If Paul and Barnabas, and the leaders in Antioch, are
        confident in their views on circumcision, why submit
        the issue to the leadership in Jerusalem?

  2. Church Headquarters

    1. Read Acts 15:4. What kind of greeting does the leadership
      give Paul and Barnabas? (It seems to be a warm welcome.)

    2. Read Acts 15:5. Why does it seem that only converted
      Pharisees have the pro-circumcision view? (The good news
      is that this brings the two sides together for a
      discussion. The bad news is that it suggests that the
      leadership of the early Church was not behind the pro-circumcision point of view. I say “bad news” because the
      pro-circumcision group seems to have the backing of the

  3. Examining the Biblical Evidence

    1. Read Jeremiah 9:25-26. What concerns God here? (His people
      are circumcised in the flesh, but not the heart.)

      1. Does this mean that literal circumcision is not
        enough? (Yes.)

      2. Does that mean that literal circumcision is
        unnecessary? (It does not. Rather, the logical
        conclusion is that a person must be circumcised in
        both the flesh and the heart.)

    2. Read Romans 4:8-10. What does this tell us about being
      saved? (That circumcision is not necessary for salvation.)

      1. Of course, Paul is part of the group in Acts 15
        arguing against circumcision!

    3. Read Romans 4:11-12. Of what is circumcision a sign?
      (Righteousness by faith.)

      1. Let’s say that Paul is exactly right about the timing
        of Abraham’s righteousness and his circumcision.
        Let’s agree that Abraham was declared righteous apart
        from circumcision. If he had not followed through
        with circumcision, what does Genesis 17:14 say should
        happen? (Abraham should be “cut off” as someone who
        is not in covenant relationship with God.)

      2. Some argue that being in a covenant relationship with
        God is different than salvation. But, if that is
        true, why does Genesis 17:14 say the result of
        failing to become circumcised is that you are “cut
        off” by God? How can that be understood any other way
        than as a loss of salvation?

    4. At this point you may be asking, “Bruce, what are you
      arguing? The New Testament is clear that circumcision is
      not required!” My goal is not to have you conclude that
      circumcision is required, I do not believe that it is. My
      goal is to have you see that the Bible-based argument of
      the Pharisee converts in favor of circumcision is strong,
      while the counter arguments are weak when considering only
      the Old Testament. Why is that important? (The inescapable
      conclusion for me, one that I do not like very much, is
      that a strong Biblical argument should not always resolve
      the question.)

      1. If the strong Biblical argument does not win, then
        how should we decide important controversies in the
        church today? Let’s consider that next.

  4. The Resolution

    1. Read Acts 15:6-9. What does Peter argue in opposition to
      circumcision? (The Holy Spirit has clearly demonstrated
      that Gentiles are accepted by God.)

      1. Is that the question? (No. The question is whether,
        after the Gentiles become Christians, must they also
        be circumcised?)

    2. Read Acts 15:10-11. What does Peter argue here? (He first
      argues that circumcision is a burden, a yoke. That is the
      practical argument that we previously discussed.)

      1. Should a command of God be ignored simply because it
        is a burden?

    3. Let’s look again at Acts 15:11. What new argument is Peter
      making here, and what does it have to do with the issue of
      burden? (Peter argues that Jesus makes the difference. The
      “burden” could not simply be circumcision, for the Jews
      were circumcised. The burden was the law.)

      1. This is so important that we must not miss it. How
        does Jesus make the difference? How does He nullify a
        direct instruction from God? (Jesus fulfilled the
        requirements of the law on our behalf. “We believe it
        is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are

    4. Before we continue on with the arguments made against
      circumcision in this Acts 15 meeting, explain how this
      argument about grace applies to other commands of God? (We
      are never saved by our works. We are only saved by what
      Jesus has done for us.)

      1. This still leaves the question about how we should
        live. The Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to
        be saved. But, should they do it as an act of
        obedience to God? If they should not, should the
        Church stop arguing in favor of God’s other
        commandments? (Looking at this from our current point
        of view, we include in the Bible the New Testament.
        It is clear that baptism, not circumcision, is the
        new sign of our relationship with God. Colossians

      2. One of the burning issues in the Christian Church
        today is homosexual sex. Those who believe that they
        are homosexuals will argue that refraining from same
        sex relationships is a great burden – probably
        greater than circumcision. Should the Church view
        this like circumcision? (I don’t think so. A major
        reason is that homosexual relationships are not only
        condemned in the Old Testament ( Leviticus 20:13), but
        also in the New Testament ( Romans 1:24-27) – even
        after the cross, after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
        However, as with circumcision, it is true that no one
        is saved by refraining from homosexual sex. That
        “work” of refraining is no more meritorious than any
        other work when it comes to being saved by our

    5. Read Acts 15:13-18. What argument does James make against
      the pro-circumcision group? (He makes a Biblical argument.
      He says that the gospel going to the Gentiles is a
      fulfillment of prophecy. He notes that the miracles done
      among the Gentiles which were reported by Barnabas and
      Paul confirm this.)

    6. Friend, the judgment of the early Church leaders was to
      free the Gentiles from the obligation to be circumcised.
      What is the lesson for us today? (We need to carefully
      consider controversies in the church. Just because one
      group has a clear “thus saith the Lord” is not the end of
      the discussion. We need to see where the Holy Spirit is
      leading. We need to look at the full treatment of the
      Bible on the subject. We need to accept that we are all
      saved by grace alone.)

      1. Are you on board with this?

  5. Next week: The Second Missionary Journey.