In this chapter in Acts, the story is continued of the spread of the church, both geographically, and also, to Gentiles as well as Jews. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, all the brethren and the apostles in Jerusalem and Judea (all Jews remember) heard that the Gospel had gone to the Gentiles, but only those brethren who were “of the circumcision” contended with Peter or found fault with him about it.
The brethren who were of the circumcision party keep coming into the picture in Acts and Paul’s epistles, so who are they? They believed that in order to receive salvation, someone had to be a Jew or a converted Jew. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant – not the covenant God made with Moses on Mt Sinai, but the covenant God made with Abraham 400 years before Moses. When someone was born as a Jew, of course they received circumcision if their family were of the Torah- keeping party.
Remember we had learned that at this time in history, there were two parties of Jews? They were the Torah- observant Jews, and the Hellenist Jews, who were culturally like Greeks since Greek culture had pervaded the ancient world from the time of Alexander the Great. The Hellenist Jews did not circumcise their children, as they lived like Greeks in all things. Some of the Jewish males, moreover, who had been circumcised as babies, wanting to be of the Hellenist party, even had surgery done so that when they were naked in Greek gymnasiums, they would not appear to be Jews but Greeks.
Now we can see why the issue of whether someone was circumcised or not was a big issue! For the first century believers, UNcircumcision was culturally a sign of rejecting YHVH from being God over you and embracing paganism and the world.
So the circumcision party believed that a Jew had to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses IN ORDER to receive salvation. Now the early believers, all Jews, obeyed the Law of Moses. Being saved did not change that for them. We saw with Peter and the vision of the sheet in the last chapter in Acts, that when in the vision he was commanded to kill and eat, he replied, “Not so, I have never eaten anything unclean.” He continued to obey the Law of Moses. So up until the time God sent Peter to Cornelius, everyone who was saved by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, was also a circumcised Jew who obeyed the Law of Moses.
Why the need for a circumcision party then, when every believer since the resurrection of Jesus was circumcised? The circumcision party had just made it a matter of doctrine that SALVATION in Jesus Christ was only open to those who were circumcised and obedient to the Law of Moses. In other words, it was a doctrine which EXCLUDED the Hellenist Jews from salvation. No one even considered that the Gentiles would ever be a part of the salvation question.
Don’t you just love how God, by His great mercy and outstretched arm, overturns our pet doctrines when they get in the way of His Word and working out His purpose in the earth, LOL?
So Peter, explaining what happened, silenced the circumcision party, because clearly if the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, that was not something that could be contrived. The baptism and working of the Holy Spirit, with His gifts and signs, is a major way that the Lord bears witness to others and the world that He has accepted those people as His people. No one can argue with it. 🙂
Now the Gospel had spread as far as Phoenicia – modern- day Lebanon – Cyprus – an island out in the Mediterranean Sea a distance from the Israel coast – and Antioch, which was the most important city in Asia Minor, which is modern- day Turkey. The disciples who had been scattered there from Jerusalem and Judea, because of the persecution Saul had brought against the Church, went about preaching to the Jews only. That is, the TORAH OBSERVANT Jews only. The Hellenist Jews as we have seen were not even considered Jews, or partakers of the covenant of promise, by the Torah- observant Jews, because they had not been circumcised.
But in Antioch, some of the believers went and preached to the Hellenists too, and many of those who were UNCIRCUMCISED Hellenist Jews believed and were saved. So the Church in Jerusalem, hearing what great things the Lord was doing in the Church in Antioch, sent Barnabas to them, and he, once he had found Saul, brought him with him and they stayed a whole year in Antioch, strengthening the Church there.
The famine was the occasion that the Church in Antioch had to send Barnabas and Saul back to Jerusalem, where I am sure, they gave a full account of all that the Lord was doing among the Jews and Hellenist Jews in Antioch, and probably, those Gentiles who were proselytes to Judaism and who were also meeting in the synagogues on Sabbath.
All this detail is important, because a clear understanding of Acts prevents us from making mistakes in interpretation when we get to the epistles, where this culture and history bears upon the issues addressed in the letters of Paul. 🙂