It’s easy to imagine we have arrived, that we have reached peak understanding. Many in our community talk about “The Truth” as if we have arrived at a complete understanding. But that is not what Jesus calls us to. We see in the Bible shows discipleship means growing and sometimes obtaining new insights into God. Practical experience, cold hard facts sometimes prompt these insights. Other-times this growth just comes as part of the common path of life. God as a parent means more when you have children, resurrection means more when you lose loved ones. Life means more when you realise you have less of it than you used to. As we get older our experience often softens youthful certainties and hard edges. Life and the realities we encounter change and grow our understanding.
Luke is particularly keen on the expression “The Way” to describe the faithful community (eg Acts 9:2, Acts 19:9, 23 Acts 23:14, 22). This description carries overtones of behaviour as well as growth, being on a path to a destination. Describing our position as “The Truth” risks a rigidity in attitude which stifles growth. This is problematic when our interpretive approach is demonstrably fallible – a fact our long list of missteps applying prophecy demonstrates. When we are in the Truth mindset we take a narrow view of Scripture, when we are in the Way mindset we read with Jesus and more, we walk with Jesus and are open to what he is doing in our lives.
Acts demonstrates the disciples – instructed by the Lord and possessing the Holy Spirit – had to change their opinions on important received doctrines. These changes were prompted – forced – by the practical reality they faced. Jesus was working in them and driving His Way to a new broader understanding. We all have plenty of positions we have inherited. To question some of them is very challenging for some. It can be destabilising for others. But many things we simply knew because of Sunday School, might not be useful answers any more. Whether it is Genesis, the Joshua invasions, gender roles, sexuality, the working of the spirit – in so many places we can run into controversy. But mountains of facts and oceans of questions won’t vanish because they are inconvenient, because they don’t fit with a rigid received “The Truth”. The Way had to deal with God commanded realities and grow into a new course. It can feel radical and dangerous. There is a spot in the series “The Chosen” when they are about to journey through Samaria, one of the disciples protests and when Jesus insists the disciple responds “that’s different” and the Jesus character responds “get used to different”.
We are going to take an example from the early community to explore it. Because it is a settled argument we can miss how significant the challenge facing the Way was. Circumcision was commanded by God. A simple Bible reading (an approach beloved by many) said this was once and for all the case. But the straightforward reading of God’s word was wrong. Following Jesus, following the Way requires more thinking than holding onto the Truth.
The uncomfortable matter of Gentile inclusion and circumcision
We have solid insight into the early response and decision making because we see it described in the first half of Acts. The challenge grew and until a solution was reach on surprising grounds.
Initially preaching was focussed in Jerusalem but persecution led to the preaching spreading to the Samaritans in Acts 8 – driven by Phillip. While generally hated by the Jews, Samaritans were loosely related to the Jews (2 Kings 17:26-34). It seems Samaritans also practised circumcision  . What was perhaps a little debateable and uncomfortable becomes a major issue with the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10.
Peter had strong views on Torah observance – that is obvious when he refuses three times to obey an angelic command. He clearly knows something big is going to happen with the visit to Cornelius. Under the law you needed 2-3 witnesses (Deut 19:15). Peter takes 6 witnesses (Acts 11:12) – his caution was justified, he was going to need all the witnesses! The record is clear, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius and the household as they listened to Peter (Acts 10:44). Luke neatly notes that “the circumcised believers who accompanied Peter were greatly astonished” (Acts 10:45). Luke could have just called them Peter’s companions, or the witnesses or the Jews with Peter. But no – Luke is going to underscore the point of contention which immediately arises. Cornelius and his house were not circumcised unlike ‘proper’ believers. Peter, armed with the evident facts and his overabundance of witnesses can defend himself from the criticism that immediately came in Acts 11. The community responds with what seems to be a note of surprised reluctance mixed with joy (the same is perhaps evident in Peter in Acts 10).
Acts 13-14 describes the first missionary journey of Paul with Barnabas – a journey which memorably included them saying they were turning to preach to the Gentiles in Acts 13:46. This missionary journey plus the local outreach in Antioch led to confrontation with a pro circumcision faction who travelled to Antioch in Acts 15. Unable to win/resolve the debate locally, the matter is referred to an innovative new problem-solving body – a conference of elders.
The pro circumcision party had better scriptural arguments
If we had to debate circumcision as a current requirement – OT only – which side would you pick? The thing is circumcision was a well-established requirement for the covenant people. It was an obvious, basic fact of the Bible that salvation required circumcision. Consider the Biblical facts:
- God gave the sign of male circumcision to Abraham as a covenant requirement in Gen 17:7-14. This was an enduring covenant and failure to comply meant exclusion from the covenant.
- The symbol was given prior to the Mosaic Law, therefore the taking away of the Law didn’t take away circumcision.
- The seriousness of circumcision – before the Law – is obvious when God seeks to kill Moses (or his son, it is a little unclear) because the boy wasn’t circumcised in Exod 4:24-26. Circumcision is neither a light thing or just a Law thing.
- Circumcision was not reserved for Jews. When the covenant was given in Gen 17 Ishmael was circumcised. Gen 17:27 says everyone in Abraham’s household was circumcised whether they were his family or foreigners. Ethnicity was irrelevant. If you are associated with Abraham you should be circumcised, Jew or not.
- The Passover could be celebrated by non Jews if they were circumcised per Exod 12:48-49
- The physical act was accompanied by an expectation of a circumcised mind – ie a pure or humble mindset. Jer 4:4, Deut 10:16. It was a required physical symbol of an essential inward attitude. Who couldn’t get behind that?
- John the Baptist and Jesus were both circumcised.
- Jesus clearly refocussed teachings/practices about the Sabbath but NEVER about circumcision. He gave no warrant to neglect this covenant requirement.
While Jewish believers were being challenged by the conversation of non-Jews to The Way, it was obvious to many of them that circumcising the Gentile converts was a logical requirement. After all:
- If the Gentiles through faith were now heirs of Abraham and sharers in the Abrahamic Covenant (cue Galatians 3!) obviously they would need to symbolise their membership of the covenant community by being circumcised.
- If you as a Gentile wished to share in the true Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7) then they were welcome. Just be circumcised consistent with the whole Passover symbol.
- Like the promises, circumcision predated the Mosaic Law and the fulfilment of the Law doesn’t remove either the Abrahamic promise OR the Abrahamic token of the promise.
- An enduring covenant, relevant to the gospel, means an enduring symbol (circumcision). There was no scriptural warrant to alter God’s word in Gen 17 and split covenant from covenant symbol.
On what basis could you argue against circumcision being a logical requirement for new adherents to The Way?
|Arguments against circumcision||Possible pro circumcision responses?|
|Some OT converts appear not to have been circumcised eg Naaman the Syrian||This is an argument from silence. Plus it is a bizarre case – Naaman still participated in idol worship so not really sure whether he is legit anyway.|
|The Law was taken away by Jesus.||Circumcision predated the Law and was linked to the promises to Abraham – promises we share in – and this covenant hasn’t been taken away.|
|It’s just a symbol.||Like baptism, bread, wine…so don’t knock symbols|
Circumcision wasn’t easy to knock over scripturally. Perhaps that is one reason why the issue was still contentious late for decades in the first century community – well after the Jerusalem Conference ruling in Acts 15. Paul mentions the circumcision party in Titus 1:10 and this book is believed by conservative scholars to have been written after the events narrated in Acts, eg Lea and Mouce. Barnabas and Peter, both leaders with personal experience of God working to convert Gentiles, yielded to the pro-circumcision faction according to Gal 2:12-13.
We have the benefit of the inspired record specifically rejecting circumcision after the issue had officially been decided. They had only the OT from which strong pro circumcision arguments could be made. How the early community got to the right position on circumcision is a little surprising. Paul and Barnabas were unable to win the doctrinal debate and shut down the issue in Antioch in Acts 15:2 and the matter had to be referred to an unprecedented conference.
The Jerusalem Conference settled the new question based on evidence & new readings of Scripture
The argument of the pro circumcision party isn’t hard to reverse engineer. It’s pretty solid. They had two distinct demands:
It is necessary to circumcise the Gentiles and to order them to observe the law of MosesActs 15:5
But Peter, Paul and James carried the day in reject both of these demands. What was their argument?
Peter appealed to the facts. God gave uncircumcised Cornelius and his household the spirit just as He did to the believers (Acts 15:8). No scripture. Just logic. God has done this regardless of circumcision & Mosaic Law keeping. Peter did not address the scriptural argument advanced by his opponents. No – I saw God do this so end of discussion. The Truth mindset likes the black and white certainty of traditional readings. But Peter used the Way mindset – he was open to the newly available facts as the core of his argument.
Next up Paul. His argument? God did all these miracles through us while we preached to the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). Therefore circumcision and law keeping are not required. Again this is an argument based on observed facts NOT on scripture. Paul was no stranger to biblical debate – but in this instance he just goes to the physical evidence.
James appears to give the final speech of note . He firstly reiterates the practical observation that God is doing this in Acts 15:14. He then goes on to quote Amos 9:9-11 saying:
16 ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the fallen tent of David; I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, 17 so that the rest of humanity may seek the Lord, namely, all the Gentiles I have called to be my own,’ says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from long ago.Acts 15:16-18
Perfect says James. Their lived experience, the observable facts demonstrated the nations were coming to God and this is what the Bible (in Amos 9) said we should expect. But…
James does not address the relevance of the Law. This was half of the contention in v5. James doesn’t touch it. Nor does his scriptural quotation say ANYTHING about circumcision. The OT agreed foreigners could come and eat the Passover, just as the gentiles could join in the greater Passover of Jesus’ redemption – just be circumcised! His evidence reinforces the observations of Peter and Paul. Gentiles were part of God’s plan. BUT his proof text is silent about the requirements of the Law and the enduring token of the Abrahamic covenant. It does not establish that circumcision was not required for Gentiles. This is taking a Jesus led approach to the Bible. It is reading through the lens of love – you have been told but I say of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a love your neighbour ethic over the exclusivity of law. It is the Way versus the Truth.
But it gets more interesting.
James uses a version of Amos which suits his argument. Amos 9:11-12 actually says:
11 In that day I will rebuild the collapsing hut of David. I will seal its gaps, repair its ruins, and restore it to what it was like in days gone by. 12 As a result they will conquer those left in Edom and all the nations subject to my rule.” The Lord, who is about to do this, is speaking!Amos 9:11-12
Now verse 11 is the same. But verse 12 is totally different to what James quotes. James says the Gentiles come to seek God. Amos says Israel will conquer Edom in particular and the Gentiles in general. The thrust of Amos is opposite the sentiment James is giving. Opposite.
How did this happen?
James is quoting from the Septuagint which gives a totally different focus. There is a lot of detail around the why of this change – but lets just say the BEST explanation for the LXX reading is the scribe misread two words. The MT is without question the right reading. We know this by looking at the Dead Seas Scrolls,  as well as the Peshitta – a translation into the Syriac tongue in the first two centuries AD which supports the MT,.
So the evidence is that the dominant text – the official Hebrew text was as per Amos 9:12 today. James is quoting from a novel translation – a faulty one – to make his point.
James goes on to argue based on expediency:
“Therefore I conclude that we should not cause extra difficulty…”Acts 15:19
James kind of said ‘We can see what God has done. We understand broadly God’s intention. Without getting into a detailed review of the passages used by the pro circumcision party here is an expedient approach which will help the gospel spread even if it doesn’t answer all the arguments.’
The Way settled a difficult doctrinal discussion by looking at the physical facts and using a new reading of a familiar passage to move forward based on the vibe rather than the detail.
The relevance to today
We face a decision in our discipleship. We can either be “The Way” people who are open to growth and following Jesus or “The Truth” people who are nervously protecting what they have received. Sometimes we might switch back and forth between these mindsets.
It is obvious today that we have a whole new world of facts which directly relate to our understanding. Whether it is the age of the earth of the capacity of women to lead in outstanding ways, our lived experience is providing insights which enable those with The Way mindset to grow into new and exciting answers (ie very risky answers) to questions.
The Bible points to nature, to observable facts, to teach moral lessons (Prov 6:6, Matt 5:45) and to teach about God (Psa 19:1-4, Rom 1:19-20). Despite powerful scriptural arguments, the Way – led by the apostles – considered the evidence from God’s works and adjusted their thinking.
All Scripture is given for our learning, it’s a useful tool for teaching. But we need to read it with The Way mindset – ie read with Jesus. Heb 1:1-2 is relevant:
After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things,Hebrews 1:1-2
The whole point of discipleship is to become like Jesus – that is the Way. While it is obvious that Jesus is the standard and objective, isn’t it obvious that we grow by the Bible? Yes and no. Yes the Bible is an important tool but Jesus is the:
the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [Jesus]John 14:6 NRSV
When we are of the Way we keep it clear that Jesus is the path, not tradition and creeds – useful though tools though they can be. Jesus was critical of the Bible scholars of his day who strained over knats and swallowed camels. In one powerful passage he says to them:
You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, 40 but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.John 5:39-40
Jesus is the way, not the Bible. Jesus is life not Bible reading. I’m all for reading and understanding the Bible but we have to be clear – Jesus is the way truth and life.
In Acts 15 we see James’ approach to the Scripture. James the Just, this strict law abiding Jew is using the novel Greek Septuagint in preference to the authoritative Hebrew scriptures. James uses this vibe to reconcile what Jesus was clearly doing with what the Bible clearly said about circumcision. New facts led to a new reading, a new style which prioritised a broad Jesus led love over a narrow traditional strict reading. This is how the Way operated.
So what then?
Is a heretic telling you to disregard the Bible and go with the Vibe? No. Not quite.
What I’m saying is Jesus is our interpreter. His broad love is our guide. Love your neighbour despite OT passages telling you to kill the Amalekites, the Canaanites and those who don’t support your local sports team. Jesus teaches us to demonstrate the powerful redemptive love he showed, the transformative love which makes hating a brother as unacceptable as murdering one.
Having Jesus perspective should inform our reading. Just as new learnings and life experience will. This is part of being in The Way. This is the natural growth we should show as Heb 6:1 says we should:
progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation againHebrews 6:1
When it comes to Scripture the Way read it as Jesus taught them to in Matt 23:23
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the othersMatt 23:23
We can obsess about Greek and Hebrew, we can argue about the correct interpretation of Joshua, or Exodus. We can squeeze principles out of the Mosaic Law in a way which suits our prejudices. Or we can apply the Jesus approach. Justice, mercy and faith. Get those right as priorities. Don’t overreact and somehow think we can learn Jesus without any Bible. But the things we pull from the Bible should be justice, mercy and faith first, second and third. Justice Mercy and Faith are the Way attributes. Tithing tiny herbs is where humanity trends, its really about upholding and defending mainly because it’s achievable and I can tithe more righteously than you. But discipleship of Jesus keeps things in perspective. The hard stuff – justice, mercy and truth is the priority.
We need to be those in “the Way” rather than The Truth. We are following Jesus the supreme revelation of God, not protecting the old paths.
We are expected to think about God’s way and words through the clarifying lens of Jesus. This is how we develop the moral discernment, the spiritual maturity to choose to walk like Jesus. If we keep Jesus at the forefront we will ensure Justice, Mercy and Truth are the centre of our discipleship.
As a community we have a valuable heritage of Biblical exploration and knowledge. That is a good thing. This is a great thing. It would be a terrible mistake to jettison the value of biblical knowledge because somethings might be overplayed. We do not want to throw the bible out with the bathwater. We personally need to capitalise on our rich heritage by ensuring we maintain the way mindset and be open to growing with Jesus.
So this week let’s be the way, the Jesus Way. Make Justice, Mercy and Truth be your guiding principles and be open to being led by Jesus to new and surprising conclusions in love.
 The initial inspiration for this article was a podcast by The Bible Project. Although this article goes in a different direction the spark was started by listening to their podcast – like much of their material very worth a listen One Family Once More Podcast | BibleProject™
 Moore, G. F. (1911). The Covenanters of Damascus; A Hitherto Unknown Jewish Sect. The Harvard Theological Review, IV(3), 365.
 Dunn, J. D. G. (2006). The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (Second Edition, p. 40). London: SCM Press.
 Law, T. M. (2013). When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (p. 104). New York: Oxford University Press.
 “the Greek [of Amos] is, for the most part, a faithful rendition of a Hebrew text that was likely very similar to the text preserved in the MT…The most significant difference between the OG and the Hebrew is the portion of text that is underlined: the rest/remainder of the peoples may seek [me] for may possess the remnant of Edom. Where did this translation come from? Is it totally due to a theological point (Tendenz) that the translator wished to introduce, or did the translator misread the Vorlage (the source text from which the translation was made), or was the source text for the OG different from what we have in the MT? We will deal with these matters in ascending order of difficulty. Though there is always the possibility that an alternative Vorlage is the source of a variant reading in the OG, it is also a question of probability. How likely is it that an alternative Vorlage is the best explanation? In this instance, the reading of the OG seems to be different because of an understanding of the Hebrew text rather than because the Hebrew text was different from the MT. The use of κατάλοιποι the rest/remainder to render שְׁאֵרִית remnant is a common equivalent in the LXX. However, the difficulty is that remnant is the object in the Hebrew whereas the rest/remainder has become the subject in the Greek. The second difficulty is that the remnant of Edom has become the rest of the peoples. Here the translator has read the Hebrew word אֱדוֹם Edom as if it were a plural form of אָדָם people/humanity. So, the translation the rest of the peoples is related very closely to the Hebrew text and could represent the translator’s intention to provide a faithful rendition, though there is the problem that the rest of the peoples has become the subject of the Greek subordinate clause. Turning to the verb we find that ἐκζητέω seek translates ירשׁ possess. This is a unique rendering in the LXX and is a departure from the sense of the Hebrew. Yet it is interesting to note that ἐκζητέω in the LXX most frequently renders דרשׁ seek (73x). The difference between the two Hebrew words ירשׁ possess and דרשׁ seek is only the first letter. There is also the possibility that the translator read בקשׁ, which is rendered by ἐκζητέω 29x, but that would require the translator to confuse two consonants, ב and ק for ד and ר.” McLay, T. (2003). The use of the Septuagint in New Testament research (pp. 20–21). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
 Eidevall, G. (2017). Amos: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. (J. J. Collins, Ed.) (Vol. 24G, p. 33). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
 Abegg, M., Jr., Flint, P., & Ulrich, E. (1999). The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English (Am 9:12). New York: HarperOne.