Paul’s travels are well chronicled. From Lystra, he returns to Iconium, and from there, he makes his way back to Antioch. Upon return to Antioch, he and Barnabas “gathered the church together” and “reported all the things God had done with them, and that He had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles” (14:27b). All is well in Antioch until “some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (15:1) By this, we understand why Acts throws helpful light on Romans. Obviously, owing to the time that we have already spent in Galatians, we can place this alongside the happenings that Paul reports in Galatians two. The agitation that is on display in the letter to the Galatians, as Paul recounts his Antioch experience, demonstrates the seriousness of the issue of Gentile justification by faith.
We’ll note that Luke moves directly from God’s opening of a door of faith for the Gentiles, and the veritable closing of that door through the insistence on circumcision. Whereas Paul understood the message of the Gospel to encompass the idea that Israel was “to be a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (13:47b) in an outward movement that would see the development of an ever-widening circle of the covenant people of God, the insistence upon circumcision represented an inward turning and a limitation of the efficacy of the Gospel message. Thus it is easy to understand Luke’s report that “Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them” (15:2a). Luke shows restraint in this statement, as Paul’s letter to the Galatians reports a dramatic response on Paul’s part, owing to the fact that the same type of message was being then promulgated in Galatia.
That said, chapter fifteen of Acts becomes a significant chapter in our study of Romans, justification, and the covenant marker of belief in Jesus, as we learn that “the church,” owing to the major argument and debate, “appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement. So they were sent on their way by the church… When they arrived in Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all the things God had done with them. But some from the religious party of the Pharisees who had believed stood up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of Moses.’” (15:2b-3a,4-5) Based on our knowledge about Paul from his letters, we know he is going to vociferously oppose this stance, though at this point in Luke’s history of the early church we have only just learned about Paul’s opposition to any requirement for Gentile believers to be circumcised. It is here that the reader of Acts first learns about Paul’s position, but it is safe to say that he has already worked out his opposition to any need for Gentiles to observe the works of the law, and especially that which had become the traditional covenant markers, based on his knowledge of God’s dealings with Abraham.
In Jerusalem then, “Both the apostles and the elders met together to deliberate about this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter,” mindful of Paul’s rebuke in Antioch and in contemplation of his experiences with Gentile believers, “stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the Gospel and believe.’” (15:6-7) We’ll notice that Peter ends with “believe,” not “believe and be circumcised.” Furthermore, “God, who knows the heart, has testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as He did to us” (15:8). Here, Peter (and Luke) makes reference to the events of Pentecost and his visit to Cornelius. So here, though he does not go into details, we essentially have a third telling of the story of Cornelius and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, which has Pentecost as its formulaic basis.
Pointing out the folly of the insistence that Gentiles be circumcised and forced to abide by the law of Moses, Peter says “and He made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith” (15:9). Jews and Gentiles are grouped together, without distinction. There is then no need for them to take steps to look like Jews, for God, effectively, has circumcised their hearts. As we well know, Paul has picked up on the “no distinction” idea, and used it for the purpose of identifying with Gentiles, while also emphasizing the circumcision of the heart (cleansing their hearts by faith). Having said this, Peter pointedly asks “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (15:10) Notice that it is not the Gentiles being put to the test, but God. Notice also that Peter already refers to uncircumcised Gentiles as disciples, while also placing them within the lineage of Israel’s ancestors. In conclusion then, Peter states that “On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are” (15:11). Thus, Peter disavows the value of the traditional covenant markers in justification, reinforcing the lack of distinction between Jew and Gentile in the kingdom of God that was inaugurated at the Resurrection, and elevating belief in Jesus as the mark of covenant inclusion and participation in the family of Abraham.