Do you think Acts 15 indicates that circumcision is required and that a seventh-day Sabbath is neccessary to observe for Gentile Christians?
In Acts 15, there were Jewish Christians teaching Gentiles that they needed to be circumcised; otherwise, they could not be saved. We can only assume the Sabbath was also an issue. Also, the Old Testament declares those who do not observe the Sabbath shall be put to death. This would be unacceptable to implement now.
However, at the conclusion of the council meeting, Acts 15:20 lists three things Gentiles were to observe. Verse 21 mentions that Moses had been preached and read on every Sabbath, but I don't think we can extrapolate that verse to say they were required to keep the Sabbath. To say so would seem to be an example of legalism.
Those in Acts 15 who were demanding the circumcision of Gentile believers were Jewish believers from Judea, most likely Pharisees. Although they had accepted Jesus as Messiah, they practiced Pharisaical Judaism—that is, oral traditions along with the written Law/Torah. They felt that their oral traditions and self-made laws were inspired by God and were equal to the written Law. To them, it was important to keep both their manmade oral "law" and the written Law, and they expected others to do the same.
Acts 15 reveals that Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James were opposed to the assertion by the Pharisees that certain practices, such as physical circumcision, should be mandatory for Gentile believers. Like water baptism, it has nothing at all to do with obtaining salvation.
Romans 4:9-11 shows how Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness before he was physically circumcised. That is, the spiritual circumcision of his heart is what was of utmost importance, and I believe this is true for everyone. Physical circumcision, like water baptism, is merely an outward expression of that faith; it is not a requirement for eternal salvation.
Incidentally, physical circumcision was to take place on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:3), which applied even to Jesus (Luke 2:21). Similarly, on the eighth "day" of God's creation "week," this present heavens and earth will "flee away" or be "cut off" or "circumcised," and a brand new Creation will appear in its place (Revelation 20:11, 21:1,5—see old and new Creations).
God did tell Moses that anyone who works on the Sabbath would be put to death (Exodus 31:15, 35:2). However, I think it is important to distinguish between the commandments in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 24:7), which includes the Ten Commandments written by God's finger, and later commandments, which God gave to Moses.
The Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23) consists of the commandments spoken to Moses by God at Mount Sinai, before the people broke their covenant with Him (via the golden calf), after which penalties for breaking fellowship with God (especially worshiping other gods) became more severe. There was no penalty of death for working on the Sabbath in Exodus 20:9,10 or 23:12.
There actually were no sin offering requirements in the Book of the Covenant. Sin offerings were required only after God's covenant with Israel was broken. Once Jesus died on the cross, all the penalties for sin in the Torah were paid in full, enabling believers in Him to gain eternal life without further sacrifices.
As for the list of things from which to abstain in Acts 15:20, it certainly is not an all-inclusive list of Torah requirements. For instance, murder, stealing, and adultery were not on the list, but of course the Gentiles would have been expected to refrain from these sinful deeds as well.
That list merely was a brief "introduction" of Torah commands, sort of like the "milk" before the "meat." In Acts 15:21, the statement that Moses was being read and preached in the synagogues was an indication that, in time, the Gentiles attending these synagogues would learn the "meat" of the never-ending Law/Torah (Matthew 24:35) and, gradually, would abide by them just as did Israel, into which they had been grafted (Romans 11:13,17,18).
Moreover, the Sabbath on which Moses was taught in the synagogues was a seventh-day Sabbath, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. Somehow, it seems that most Catholics and Protestants today have adopted the notion that the very early Church, soon after Jesus' resurrection and Pentecost, broke away from the original observance of a seventh-day Sabbath, as commanded in the Ten Commandments portion of the Torah (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
However, I do not believe that this was the case at all. The very early Church observed a seventh-day Sabbath. As Jewish leaders in the Church had begun to die off, Gentile Christians after the beginning of the second century began distancing themselves from Jewish practices, such as circumcision and the observance of feasts and holy days in the Spring and Fall.
The change from Saturday to Sunday gained momentum in Rome. It was influenced by a worship of the sun god on Sunday, along with the argument that Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead and, thus, was considered by many to be the "Lord's day." But the day designated by man to be the "Lord's day" is not a valid replacement for the day that God has designated as the Sabbath. With time, the Catholic Church officially changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, as can be seen in some of the images on this page: Sabbath: Saturday or Sunday?
Martin Luther rejected many tenets of the Catholic Church, such as indulgences; but one that he carried over into Protestantism was a first-day "Sabbath." Initially, Luther was pro-Jewish and wanted to convert Jews to Christianity. Later, apparently because of their resistance, he became very anti-Semitic (see Martin Luther and antisemitism).
Even in the early Church, the Gentiles began to formulate the belief that they no longer needed to observe the Hebraic Sabbath and annual festival days, even though these decrees were part of the Book of the Covenant—Exodus 23:10-19. They felt that God's covenant with Israel and the Jews had been permanently terminated, due to their refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah, and that He had made a separate new covenant only with the Church. This is a type of "replacement theology" or supersessionism, which has spread throughout much of Catholicism and Protestantism, with a concurrent belief that their requirement to obey the Torah has been annulled. I talk about why I disagree with this perspective in my two-part commentary, God's Covenant: with Israel or the Church?
Jesus had a problem with the legalism of the oral "laws" and traditions of men (Mark 7:8,9). But He had no problem at all with the written Torah. He even stated very clearly that He had not come to abolish or do away with the Law (written Torah), nor what was written by the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17). This did not mean He came to end them. Rather, He was their goal and aim; He came to embody and exemplify them, such as being sacrificed as our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7) on Passover.
Jesus was the living, breathing, walking personification of the written Torah/Word, not the conclusion or end of it. He was the epitome and quintessence of what God had engraved on the stone tablets and the Law that He had directed Moses to write and proclaim. Jesus definitely did not come to terminate the Torah (including the seventh-day Sabbath); instead, He came to show others how to observe and to comply with its good and beneficial counsel. In fact, He affirmed that not one bit of the Law/Torah will disappear until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:18), which certainly has not happened.
I know of no Christian who would deny that Nine of the Ten Commandments should be obeyed as written, not as a prerequisite for salvation and eternal life but to please God and to receive the greatest fulfillment and blessings in life. The only commandment in question is the day on which the Sabbath is observed, which God specifically decreed, and even inscribed in stone, to be the seventh day.
Moreover, God commanded that the Israelites were to observe the Sabbath as a lasting covenant and that it also would be a sign forever between God and the Israelites (Exodus 31:16,17). Since Christians are grafted into the "olive tree" of Israel (Hosea 14:5,6; Romans 11:17,18), the same applies to them.
Christians would not say that because the following commandments are "legalistic," we are not obligated to keep them:
Let’s look at Cain. He gave his offering to God, who rejected it, and Cain was very upset about that—upset enough to kill his brother, Abel. Cain probably thought that God was being very "legalistic" by not accepting his earnest offering of the fruits of the soil, though He had accepted Abel's offerings from the firstborn of his flock. Was God, indeed, being unreasonable about this? No, He wasn't, because God always is very specific about what He wants; and any other man-made way of doing it, as heart-felt and sincere as it may be, is a violation of what He has commanded.
I think that most of the Church has made the assumption that a Sunday "Sabbath" was begun soon after Jesus' resurrection and the events of Pentecost took place, both of which occurred on the first day of the week. However, I never have been able to find any compelling confirmation in the New Testament that the seventh-day Sabbath was changed to the first day of the week.
Furthermore, God fulfilled the Jewish Feast of Firstfruits with Jesus' resurrection and the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) with the Holy Spirits' appearance at Pentecost. According to Leviticus 23:11,15,16, both of these days always occur on the day after a weekly Sabbath (Saturday). That is, they always take place on the first day of the week (Sunday), and they clearly are distinguished from the regular weekly Sabbath.
Jesus certainly observed a seventh-day Sabbath in the synagogue from childhood (Luke 4:16). Since believers are urged to obey God's commands and to walk as Jesus did (Matthew 19:17; John 2:5,6), then it is worth considering that the Fourth Commandment, pertaining to the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15), should be observed exactly as written by God.
Also, when Gentile Christians observe a seventh-day Sabbath, along with the annual Hebraic feasts and festivals, it causes Jews to ponder why they would do this, and many will ask these Christians about it. It can create the opportunity to reiterate how we believe that their Torah is still intact, and this ultimately can lead them to finding their Messiah. Jesus was sent to the lost sheep of Israel (Matthew 15:24), and I believe that Gentile Christians should love them and be concerned about them as well.
I do not believe that a seventh-day Sabbath will "catch on" and become widespread among the Church before Jesus returns, although there continue to be churches and congregations who are making this transition. However, I definitely do believe that during the Millennium, King Jesus (Zechariah 14:9), who always kept a seventh-day Sabbath, will require that everyone will observe all of the annual appointed feasts and festivals, as well as a seventh-day Sabbath (Ezekiel 44:24, 46:1).
Until then, I recommend that Christians set aside and observe the Sabbath in their own individual ways, whether with family members or with friends, or even in a congregation. In Leviticus 23:3, the only requirements placed on Sabbath observance are to have a sacred assembly and to refrain from work. I do not feel that a first-day worship of God necessarily needs to be abandoned altogether by Gentile believers, as God can and should be worshiped everyday. However, I do think that some type of seventh-day commemoration of the Sabbath, a commandment written by the hand of God, is an excellent objective, at least in people's homes each Friday night and all day until sunset on Saturday.
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