15:1 And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question.
3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. 4 And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.”
There was a time when this part of the story made my blood boil. Thankfully God is still working the clay. He is helping me see the world and people from angles other than my own. It is just one of the miracles of grace that happens as we give Him more space in our lives.
The controversy, and the Bible tells us it was no small controversy, was quite simple at its core. As the message of Jesus spread beyond the Jewish world and Gentiles (non-Jews) began to follow Jesus it created a radical clash of cultures. The dominant culture was Judaism. For centuries and even millennia they had (falsely) seen themselves as the exclusive children of God. To be Jewish was to belong to God and to be otherwise was to be worthless and hopeless. Of course not every Jew thought this was but it was the prevailing sentiment. In fairness to them their exclusiveness was partially true. They were a special people. Tied to this uniqueness were certain customs referred to as the laws of Moses. Most distinctive among those laws/customs was the practice of circumcision. Beginning with Abraham God had instructed all the males to be circumcised (removal of the foreskin of the penis). Many struggle to understand why this was. For me the symbolism is quite simple and is two fold. Abraham was unable to produce a child. All his efforts were in vain. The Bible teaches from beginning to end that the flesh (symbolic of all human effort) is weak. Eventually Abraham did have children but clearly by God's power not his own efforts. The first symbol affirmed by circumcision is the uselessness of the flesh. We need God or we are hopeless. The second symbol of circumcision is even more important. The Jewish people were special for only one reason. After Adam and Eve sinned God promised He would send His Seed and His Seed would crush the serpent. The serpent as Satan and the Promised Seed was Jesus. The promise passed from Adam to Seth. From son to son it passed to the line of Noah. From Noah it passed to Shem. From Shem it passed to Abraham. When Abraham received the promise and by his life experience was taught the complete lack of our own efforts God put a mark on him that symbolized both our human weakness and God's antidote. From then on the line of men marked physically by circumcision were the line through whom the Promised Seed would come who would bless all the nations. The Jews were special not because God loved them more but because the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the whole world was coming through their family and circumcision marked the line.
Now I said at the beginning this part of the story used to make my blood boil. Tomorrow we'll talk about why. For now just understand that we all have beliefs which are to some degree rooted in truth but have become twisted with time and tradition often into something unrecognizable from the original intent. Sometimes even hostile to the original intent. For this reason we must all humbly ask God for eyes that see and ears that hear and a heart that understands. Otherwise we end up in sharp controversies making enemies instead of friends. Religion is often evil but faith in Jesus is the antidote. We need to see the world and each other from His perspective.