“Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: ‘Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth of the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit as He did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciple’s necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.’” Acts 15:6-11 (HCSB)
In the Mishna (Jewish oral law), the term “yoke” is twofold. The first yoke, or requirement, is believing in God and His Kingdom. The second yoke is the requirement to fulfill the Torah. The second must follow the first. One does not believe in God because they pursue the Torah; they pursue the Torah because they believe in God.
From the Mishna: “For what reason does the Sh’ma precede the Va’hayah im shemoa? So that one should first accept upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and only after that accept upon oneself the yoke of the commandments." B’rakhot 2:2
When Peter spoke about the “yoke” of our forefathers and how they were all unable to bear it, he was directing his comments to the second yoke. Because the “Oral Torah” is “man’s opinion,” it cannot be esteemed at the level of God’s Torah, well-intended as many of the rabbis’ rules may have been. Simultaneously, Peter stressed the absolute necessity for both Jews and Gentiles to take up the first “yoke.” Salvation depends on believing in God and His Kingdom through faith in Messiah.
Almost hidden in today’s passage is an (often uncomfortable) reality among the body of believers. From the very beginning of the Church, both Jews and Gentiles were equal in the eyes of God, as it pertains to salvation, while at the same time retaining separateness concerning worshipping cultures. Notice there is absolutely no debate about whether the Jewish believers (apostles included) should drop their Jewish identity and become like the new Gentile believers. The Jews continued worshipping as Jews, and the Gentiles remained unburdened by most of the culturally religious requirements of Judaism…both were equal in the eyes of God with respect to salvation.
As unspeakable as the Jewish demands on Gentiles to become “fully converted” Jews before salvation is the modern church’s assumption that Jews who receive salvation (through Jesus) must abandon their (now-redeemed) Torah pursuance.
The undeniable (and fully witnessed) event of Cornelius’ household conversion is unarticulated in Peter’s argument. They were saved and filled with the Spirit without being circumcised in the flesh, outwardly baptized, or having converted to Judaism. (Acts 10:44-48) Salvation is by grace, through faith, alone! (Ephesians 2:8-9)
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