God’s Word for You
Acts 11:1-3 The circumcision group
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, April 13, 2020
Happy Easter! We return now to where we left off in Acts, at the beginning of chapter 11. This and the chapter that follows will conclude the “Peter” section of Acts, after which we will begin to follow another apostle: Paul.
11 Now the apostles and the brothers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. 2 But when Peter came up to Jerusalem, the circumcision group took issue with him, 3 saying, “You went into the houses of uncircumcised men and ate with them!”
As the gospel spread throughout Judea and Samaria, the apostles arrived at the borders and coastlines of Israel and continued their work of preaching Christ crucified to everyone who would listen. This led, inevitably, to the gospel reaching the ears and hearts of Gentiles. What would this mean? Under the ceremonial law of Moses, Jews should not eat with Gentiles. But after the Holy Spirit gave Peter a vision explaining that formerly unclean foods were now clean, news of Peter’s visit to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, traveled faster than Peter himself.
Here for the first time we meet a Christian subgroup called “the circumcision group.” Perhaps this event was the very first time that this ‘group’ emerged. These were men who believed in Jesus but were formerly Jews who were unwilling to turn away from their Jewish upbringing. Their hesitation is understandable. They had not seen Peter’s vision (Peter himself had to see it three times for it to sink it).
At this point, we should not think of ‘the circumcision group’ in the same light with which we see them in Galatians 2:12, “the Judaizers,” or Titus 1:10, “mere talkers and deceivers.” This appears to be a more formative moment, where old habits were still being shaken out as the preaching of the gospel deepened their understanding of the word of God and the message of forgiveness, freedom, and peace in Christ. In chapter 15, their position is stated clearly: “Unless you are circumcised according to the law of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Since these men are called “the circumcision group” by Luke, we can associate them with the statement in Acts 15. While later in the New Testament we will look on them as opponents to the truth, at this time they were asking a legitimate question.
Their question was not one of customs and traditions, but strictly of theology. Had Peter’s doctrine collapsed? What was this new practice he was introducing? Would Peter himself, one of the Lord’s own Twelve Apostles, be removed from the church? Professor Lenski put it well: “The wonder is that all of them did not object, and also that not a single apostle objected” (Acts p. 439). Their resistance to what appeared to be a change of doctrine is not only understandable, it is commendable. A change in doctrine, not just in practice, is devastating to the church. If a change is proposed based on the word of God, on account of an error discovered in the understanding of the church, then it must be preached to the people and explained to them, not forced upon them. When groups with opposing doctrines are forced together without agreement, it will shatter the group into splinters. It will cause future divisions in the church. Worse than that, some Christians may lose their faith altogether and be left behind, just as when a cup shatters. The larger pieces might be accounted for, but there will always be little fragments that even a broom cannot find. Those who shatter churches this way don’t care much about the fragments and individuals who are lost along the way.
What we are going to see in this chapter is how a doctrinal crisis was handled with the word of God, solid preaching of the truth, and loving concern for everyone involved. The men of this circumcision group were asking questions boldly about what they heard, to be sure of the teaching behind it. This is what should always be done when there is a question about the doctrine of the church or of an individual.
Every man who has a position of leadership in the church must pray for understanding of the law and gospel: “Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws” (Psalm 119:43), and again: “May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant” (Psalm 119:76). The command of the Holy Spirit is “Watch your doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). This is possible in the fellowship of the church only by careful, prayer-filled and constant study of God’s holy word, given for our salvation. We place ourselves under God’s word with all humility, and may Christ Jesus our risen Savior reign supreme in all things.
Pastor Timothy Smith