The Issue of Circumcision and Keeping of the Law

The acceptance of the Gentiles into the church did not occur without controversy. Peter was censored for entering into Cornelius’ house and preaching to him (Acts 11:1-3). Judaizing teachers sought to bind circumcision and the law upon Gentile Christians in Antioch. Acts 15 tells how this issue was carried to Jerusalem and was settled.

Peter was the first to speak on that occasion. He showed how that God approved of the Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit as He had given the Spirit earlier to the Jews (Acts 11:15; 2:1-4). God had accepted them in their uncircumcised state. At the same meeting in which Peter had spoken, James, the brother of Jesus, also spoke and agreed with Peter’s conclusion, adding an Old Testament prophecy which had spoken of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles. The prophet was Amos (we know this by the prophecy James quoted, not by his calling the prophet by name). The prophecy reads, “After these things I will return and I will build again the tabernacle of David which is fallen and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up; that the residue of men may seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord who maketh these things known from of all” (Acts 15:16-18; cp. Amos 9:11-12).

Amos was one of the twelve minor prophets. He lived after the division of the kingdom of Israel, but before the northern kingdom was defeated by Assyrians and taken into exile. James quoted Amos’ prophecy as proof that neither circumcision nor the Law was bound upon the Gentiles, so it is important that we study that prophecy to understand why James used it the way he did.

First, Amos had said that God would return and build up the ruins of the tabernacle of David. Amos had reference to God restoring the Davidic rule to the eminence it once possessed in the “heyday” of David and Solomon. It’s glory was badly damaged when the ten northern tribes seceded from the rule of the Davidic monarchy to become an independent kingdom. When Nebuchadnezzar’s armies leveled Jerusalem to the ground and carried Zedekiah, who was the king of Judah, captive to Babylon after killing his sons and putting out his eyes (2 Kings 25:7) — that was the end of the earthly monarchy of David. However, God built up again the tabernacle of David when Jesus, the seed of David (Romans 1:1-3), was given David’s throne just as the angel Gabriel had promised Mary His mother that He would (Luke 1:31-33). That Son still reigns in heaven seated at the right hand of God — a promise God also had given David (Psalm 110:1). Amos’ prophecy was fulfilled. The “tabernacle of David” has been built up; its ruins repaired.

Amos also prophesied that when God had built again the ruin of the tabernacle of David, the residue of men (Israel and Judah) would seek after the Lord, as well as all the Gentiles. Christ’s rule was to be universal and since God had shown that He had given the Holy Spirit to all, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, then all were to submit to the rule, the dictates of David’s Son.

The arguments of Peter and James were sufficient to settle the matter, for they had spoken the word of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:29-30). Circumcision was an inconsequential matter: a man was no better if he was circumcised and no worse if he wasn’t (1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; 6:15). The Law also was broken down (Ephesians 2:14), abolished (Ephesians 2:15), slain (Ephesians 2:16), blotted out, and nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). Not only were the Gentiles not bound to keep the Law; the Jews were made dead to it by the body of Christ (Romans 7:1-4) that they also might be joined to another, to Him who had been raised from the dead.

There is no doctrine taught any more clearly than that Jews and Gentiles are made one new man in Christ and this occurred when Christ, by His death, removed the middle wall of partition (the Law) from between them.

Jim McDonald