Acts 15:1

ESV But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."
NIV Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."
NASB Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'
CSB Some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom prescribed by Moses, you cannot be saved."
NLT While Paul and Barnabas were at Antioch of Syria, some men from Judea arrived and began to teach the believers : 'Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved.'
KJV And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.
NKJV 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.”

What does Acts 15:1 mean?

Paul and Barnabas have returned to Syrian Antioch, on the northern west coast of the Mediterranean Sea, after completing their first missionary voyage. The church in Syrian Antioch is the first to include large numbers of Gentiles: those who followed Jesus with no prior affiliation with Judaism or the Jewish God (Acts 11:19–21). Likewise, the first noted convert made by Paul and Barnabas on their trip was a proconsul on the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:12). The churches they planted in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:48) and Iconium (Acts 14:1) included significant numbers of Gentiles.

After Paul and Barnabas reported to the church that had sent them (Acts 14:27), Jews from Judea arrive. Although they follow Jesus as their Messiah, they still identify as Pharisees and uphold a legalistic, pious lifestyle (Acts 15:5; Matthew 5:20). They emphasize Jesus as a Jewish Messiah. Therefore, they believe Gentiles must convert to Judaism as proselytes before they can worship Christ. To that end, they demand Gentile Jesus-followers become circumcised and follow the Mosaic law.

Paul knows their real motivation. He later warns the churches he's just planted about these same "Judaizers": "It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ" (Galatians 6:12). Having been trained as a Pharisee (Acts 22:3; Philippians 3:5), Paul knows Jesus' words are true. Most Pharisees enforce a strict law which they can't even keep, but make a show of holiness because they like the attention (Matthew 23:1–12). The Pharisaic Christians want salvation through Jesus, but they don't want to lose their reputation among the non-Christian Jews; they especially don't want to lose their place among their fellow Pharisees. To ensure that, they can't be seen associating with—let alone eating with—unwashed, unconverted Gentiles.

In other places, the Pharisees are called "the circumcision party" (Galatians 2:12; Titus 1:10) or "Judaizers." In the early church, they become especially active in the province of Galatia in central modern-day Asia Minor. They harass the churches there so much with their false gospel that Paul tells the church, "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" (Galatians 5:12).

The men who came down from Judea described here in Acts 15:1 may be the same people Paul refers to in Galatians 2:11–14. In that story, Peter had visited Paul in Syrian Antioch and welcomed the Gentiles of the church to the point that he ate with them with no reservations—as Jesus had instructed him in Acts 10:9–16. But when legalistic Jews arrived, sent by James—Jesus' half-brother [the apostle James, brother of John, had already died (Acts 12:2)]—Peter and Barnabas both meekly pulled away from the Gentiles and ate only with the Jews. Paul publicly corrected Peter, but unanswered questions abound. Why did James send them? Why did Peter, of all people, listen to them? At least we know their message was not from James (Acts 15:24).

The Judaizers cause much damage, but also give the fledgling church an opportunity to prevent the false teaching from spreading. Paul, Barnabas, Peter, the circumcision party, James, and the leaders and members of the church in Jerusalem will discuss the issue and seek out the Holy Spirit's guidance (Acts 15:6–29). This is how many truths were clarified and put into consistent terms—what we now call "theology." Those truths exist whether we understand them or not, but much of what we can understand was illuminated as people had conflicting views, so leaders gathered to talk.
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