Here we see one of the stark contrasts between the teachings of the old covenant and the new covenant and as it says in verse 2 of this chapter, it caused a great argument and “No small dissension” between the two opposed groups.
There were some men, and I must point out here for it is important, these men were believers, who came down from Judaea to the places where Paul and Barnabas were teaching and preaching the word. These men who came were now saying to the people, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Vs 1)
Then again when they along with Paul and Barnabas took this matter to the council of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, we see they again said the same in verse 5. “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Before going into the deliberations of the council and how a decision was made, let us consider why this caused a great dissension and argument. Why was it that Paul, who had been a Pharisee and administrator of the law of Moses, was so strongly opposed to this view that he decided to go to the council in the first place.
The Sign of the Law
Let us look at circumcision. In the first instance it was an instruction to Abraham that he and all of the male children in his house and amongst those with him should be circumcised. It was to be a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God and it was the first law given and became the sign and seal of the law and those who were the followers of the law.
Jesus himself showed that circumcision was a significant part of the law of Moses when he said, “Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath.” (John 7:22). Likewise Paul indicated that circumcision was the sign of the keepers of the law when he wrote, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law…” (Romans 2:25).
What he is saying is that if a man is a follower of the law of Moses, then circumcision is indeed of value. It is in fact necessary under the law for there were penalties associated with not keeping the law of circumcision for the Jews who were followers of the law of Moses.
So then why were Paul and Barnabas so strongly opposed to these men who came into the gentile churches preaching that they had to uphold the law of circumcision? And furthermore when they came to the council in Jerusalem, why did Paul and Barnabas oppose those who also said the gentile churches had to keep the law of Moses as well as being circumcised?
Here are the reasons why they opposed them.
Power of Sin
The law is the power of sin and circumcision is the sign and seal of the law and those who were the followers of the law.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:56: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”
The law of Moses gives power to sin because it is the law that defines what sin is and makes sin even more sinful when someone breaks that law. For example, a law that says, “You shall not kill,” is benign and merely instructional, until someone kills. When a person kills, then that law becomes the power by which the sin of murder is named and the mechanism by which the person is judged a murderer to receive the due penalty for the crime committed.
That is how the law works and why Paul says the law gives power to sin.
The challenge the Jews faced prior to Jesus coming was that none of them were able to keep the fulness of the law. There are more than six hundred laws in the laws of Moses, and no person was able to keep them all.
Thus sin reigned under the power of the law as people continually failed to keep that law and broke it regularly. They were given the rites of blood sacrifice to atone for their sins and the breaking of the laws, but nothing in or under the law could set them free from the power of sin contained in the law. No law could be given that said, “Thou shalt be righteous.”
This is why it was necessary for Jesus to come and why Paul and Barnabas had such a dissension with the Jews over the law and circumcision.
Freedom in Christ Jesus
Jesus came to set us free from sin. To do that He also set us free from the law of Moses because the law is the power of sin. The itself is NOT sin, but it exposes sin for what it is and through the law convicts men who break the law of sin.
Now it is evident that no man who sins will be able to stand in the presence of God. So in order for a man to come to God and to be helped by Him so that we can come into the presence of God, He had to remove sin.
This is what the grace of God is all about. It is the undeserved kindness of God towards man because He is prepared to set us free from sin and to overlook all of our sins if we have faith in Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made for our sake when He died to remove us from sin.
But in His death He did not just remove our sins, He also removed us from the law. Through His death he separated us from the law. He did not destroy the law, but He took us away from it so that we would no longer be under the power of sin or be able to break the law.
Let me explain it this way. We have a law on our road system that limits how fast you are allowed to drive. If you drive faster than the speed limit, you have broken the law, and if you are caught you suffer the penalty for breaking the law. You have sinned against the laws of the land concerning speed limits so to speak.
However, if you go to a car racing track or a speedway, once you enter through the gate onto the track you are no longer under the laws concerning speeding and you can drive as fast as you can go without fear of breaking the law. If you want to drive at 200 mph that is OK on the race track, but if you do that on the road you will be caught and fined or possibly even be sent to jail.
It’s the same with Jesus Christ in this regard. God has said that if we enter the “gate” to His kingdom through faith in the sacrifice Jesus made for our sins, He will set us free from the law so that we cannot break the laws of Moses, just like a racing car driver is freed from the laws of the road when he enters the race track gate.
Now some people knowing this believe they are permitted to do anything they like and believe they can break God’s law will billy and get away with it. That is not true. Just because you are set free from the law does not mean you should ignore it. There is great wisdom in the law of Moses for it was given by God to help mankind live a better life.
Taking the racetrack example a little further, while you can drive at 200 mph, is it safe to do so? If you have an accident at that speed you are still likely to be severely injured or most probably killed. The mere fact that it is permitted on the race track does not make it any safer.
And it is the same with God’s law. A person who does the wrong thing may not be held accountable for their sin, but they will still suffer the consequences of their wrongdoing. For example one of the laws given by Moses was that you should eat only things that come from the sea that have fins and scales. So if you eat shellfish or crustaceans, both of which are high in cholesterol and are also a high source of food poisoning, you will still get sick or affect your heart health.
So the law of Moses is holy, just and good as Paul wrote in Romans 7, but it is also the power by which sin is defined and identified and it is sin which stands between man and God. That is why God had to remove sin, and also to remove the law which is the power of sin, so that nothing stands between man and God and He is able to bring us to righteousness and perfection.
We should also note too that Moses’ brother Aaron was the first high priest established by God to administer the law. He was from the tribe of Levi and it was Aaron’s descendants, also Levites who continued the line of the priests. Indeed the whole of the tribe of Levi were the priestly tribe established to administer the law and to serve God and the people in the temple. No one else apart from a Levite, a descendant of Levi, was permitted to do service in the temple, and it is for this reason the priesthood is referred to as the Levitical priesthood.
But Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi as He was descended from King David of the tribe of Judah and yet He is a priest. We see that His priesthood was different for He was not a priest of the order of Levi but became a priest of the order of Melchizedek. Note in Hebrews 5:5-6,
5 So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; 6 as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
Jesus became the high priest of Christianity, not of the order of the Levites, but of the order of Melchizedek.
Now in relation to the law this is important for all priesthoods must administer some kind of teaching, doctrine or law. The law of Moses was taught and administered by the Levites, but did Jesus teach the law of Moses? No he did not. Hebrews tells us that there is now a different doctrine under the priesthood of Melchizedek and that the law has changed.
11 Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? 12 For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
Note verse 12 which says clearly that it is necessary that the law change as well when there is a change in the priesthood. When Jesus came He changed the priesthood and changed the law too. Why? Because as it shows in verse 11, it is impossible for a man to be perfect under the law of Moses and under the Levitical priesthood. No law could be given that says, “Thou shall be perfect.”
But when Christ came to take away your sins and to set you free from the power of sin, He opened the way by which perfection became possible. Not through anything we do but through the working of God in Jesus Christ and the grace He gave to those who have faith.
Going back to the start of this topic then, we see why it was that Paul and Barnabas so strongly opposed the approach of these men from Judaea who insisted the people be circumcised and to be kept confined under the law of Moses. If they had had their way then they would be confining us all under the priesthood of Levi which cannot lead a man to perfection and negating the power of God in Jesus Christ to set mankind free from sin so that God could make man perfect in His sight.
One final scripture that deals directly with this matter of circumcision and the law can be seen in Galatians 5:1-6.
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Paul says that if the Galatians accepted circumcision they will be bound to keep the WHOLE of the law and worse yet, they are SEVERED or CUT OFF from Christ. Would you want to be cut off from Jesus?
And look also how Paul regards the law and compares it to what Jesus offered us in verse 1. He tells us plainly that Jesus sets us free so that we can live in freedom. But if we accept the law, and that means if we go back to live under the law, we are submitting ourselves to a yoke of slavery. We will become slaves under the law and slaves to sin.
By going back to the law from which Jesus has separated us, we return to slavery and bondage to sin and we rebuild the barriers of sin through the law which stands between man and God. And if we do that, then as Paul says, the freedom Christ offers is gone and so the teachings of Jesus Christ under the new covenant, under the priesthood of Melchizedek will be of no use to us for we have severed ourselves from Christ for the sake of the law.
It is no wonder Paul and Barnabas disputed so severely with the circumcision party of the believers and why they took the issue back to the council of apostles and elders in Jerusalem. We will see the discussion that took place in the coming posts and how this matter was resolved.
Unfortunately though today many have forgotten this path in Christ Jesus for most churches preach and teach the law and worship under a mishmash of the old and new covenants, which is worse than being under either the old or new alone. But that will be a topic for another time.
Please feel free to email me regarding anything in this post. This is a difficult subject and may be hard to grasp for some, but it is important we all understand it for these are the teachings that lead to freedom and life in Christ Jesus.
(Image sourced from stock.xchng provided by Michal Zacharzewski, SXC)
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