Another passage I looked at was Acts 15. In this passage we find the leaders of the church gathered in Jerusalem to decide what laws would be binding on the Gentile Christians. There were those, the Judaizers, who were teaching that unless a person is “circumcised according to the Law of Moses they could not be saved” (15:1) These Judaizers, a sect of the Pharisees who had become Christian, were putting the requirements of circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses on all new converts. They wanted all new converts to become “Circumcised and keep the Law of Moses.” Paul and Barnabas were adamant that such requirements should not be placed on new believers.

Peter agreed with them and said,

Acts 15:10 (KJV) Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?

He goes on in verse 11 to point out that we are saved by grace, not the Law.

Acts 15:11 (KJV) But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. See foot note below #1

At this point it is necessary to highlight the fact that the entrance sign of becoming a Jew was the sign of circumcision. A male was not considered a full Son of Israel until he was circumcised. Once one was circumcised, he was then required to keep all of the laws. This included the Sabbath which was the continuing sign of allegiance to the Old Covenant. See foot note below # 2 as we will soon see.

Obviously, the sign of circumcision was not clearly visible, but the continuing sign of the Sabbath was very obvious. Both men and women participated in this sign. Failure to keep Sabbath was punishable by death. (Ex. 31:14) The Sabbath sign, however, was not expected of those who were not orthodox Jews. The entrance sign of circumcision was a prerequisite sign for entrance into the Jewish community. Once one had become circumcised, he was then under obligation to keep the rest of the Law, including the Sabbath. This can be understood today with baptism and church membership. Each church has a set of standards or core expectations that are part of that community of believers. Once one is baptized and makes the decision to become a member of that community, he/she is then expected to live in accordance with these core expectations. However, if one has not taken the prerequisite step and been baptized or has not chosen membership, there is no obligation to these values or standards. Circumcision was the entrance commitment for membership into the Jewish community.

Without circumcision there was no obligation to the rest of the law. This is why circumcision was the issue that was so hotly debated. Sabbath observance was not expected of the uncircumcised, non-Jewish community around them. The rules regarding Sabbath involved not carrying a burden, not building a fire, not traveling, and of course, not working in any way on that day. This was to apply to the Jews and also to the stranger within their gates or their households. It was not applicable to the strangers who “sojourned among them.” Only those within their gates were required to keep Sabbath. There were also the food laws and the laws of uncleanness that were part of this system and marked the Jews as separate from the rest of the world around them. It is clearly these requirements that Peter was referring to as a burden too heavy to bear. In Acts 15 the church leaders came to a solution. They decided not to place on the new converts any of the specific regulations that were part of the covenantal system of Judaism. They did not require the entrance sign, so the rest of the laws would not apply either—just as today we do not require someone who is not baptized to follow all the guidelines of a particular church. The regulations that they did require had their origins in the Noahic covenant (see Gen. 6-10, which included worship of the true God, avoiding things strangled, blood, and sexual immorality). These were considered by Jews everywhere to be required of all people since the covenant with Noah applied to all humans. Leviticus 17-18 expands on these and defines what is meant by these regulations. In each case in Leviticus 17-18, it is made clear that they are binding on the “stranger that sojourns among you.” (Notice the clear distinction between this group and the “stranger that is within your gates.”) Notice also Acts 15:20 where these regulations are considered binding on the new converts. The reason being that there were Jewish people in every city who read the Law of Moses each Sabbath, and they would expect someone who fears the Lord, even if not a part of the Jewish circumcised Sabbath-keeping observant community, to follow these guidelines. Why? Because the Jews believed they were universal requirements based on the Noahic covenant. For any Jew to respect a Christian, the believer must be seen as at least following the Noahic laws. Hence, the early church council decided to require Noahic covenant stipulations on all Christians, but did not require the Mosaic regulations. See foot note below #3

The ruling was repeated again in the letter that went out to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:28-29). The result was great rejoicing in the church. The Sabbath was not one of the requirements placed on these new believers. Some have tried to make an argument for the validity of Sabbath observance from the comparative silence concerning Sabbath debates in the New Testament. They contend that since there was no big debate over the Sabbath in the early church and there was so much said about circumcision, that Sabbath must have still been required. If circumcision was such a big deal, wouldn’t Sabbath have been a bigger issue? Not at all! Where there was no entrance to the Jewish community through circumcision, there was no Sabbath requirement. The entrance sign came first. The continuing sign was immaterial if the initial sign was not present. This is why the circumcision battle was fought so intensely. It was the starting point to all Law observance. Where there is no circumcision there is no Law. Sabbath would have no relevance without the entrance into the Jewish community. Another argument is often used by sabbatarians. It states that we should follow Paul’s custom. He attended the synagogue on the Sabbath and so should everyone else. It was Paul’s custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath. But does this mean that he thought it was still binding? Not necessarily. The problem with the argument is that it fails to take into consideration Paul’s motivation for being there. Was Paul going to the synagogue because he believed it was a binding obligation for Christians? No! It was Paul’s custom to go to the synagogue to evangelize the Jews. He would go to the Jews first (Rom.1:16) whenever he went to a new city. He would teach in the synagogues in each city until he was thrown out, and then he would meet with Gentiles. His intention was to reach out to Jews, not because he was obligated to keep Sabbath.

Foot note #1 Notice the use of the word yoke attached to the Law. This is the same way Paul referenced the Law in Galatians 5:1 calling it a yoke of bondage. Interestingly, Jesus instructs His followers to take His yoke upon them because His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Jesus is a light yoke, the Law is a yoke of bondage. See Matthew 11:28-30.

Foot note #2 Dale Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Crisis (Glendale, AZ, 1990) pp 180-182 for expanded discussion.

Foot note # 3 Notice also that the Noahic food laws allowed all creatures to be used for food (Gen. 9:3). Therefore, Acts 15 does not require the clean/unclean distinction that was part of the Sinai Covenant.