Are Christians Jewish?
That is the question for today, and it is a difficult one. There has been a lot of work done in the area of harmonizing Acts with Galatians 1-2, but we'll deal with that in more depth when we reach Galatians. First, a summary of what the issues are in Acts 15.
Paul and Barnabas get into a scuffle with some men that are saying that in order to be saved, people must be circumcised. There is a huge argument, and it becomes apparent that the only way to resolve it is to gather together the leaders of the Church, discuss things, and come to a unified decision so that there is a basis for the "correct" view. Practically, this means that Paul and Barnabas, instead of appealing to their own message, can appeal instead to the decision of the Church as a whole, supported Biblically and experientially.
Before we move on, a clarification needs to be made. I think that from what we have read in Acts so far in the various speeches/sermons, the early church understands the Good News clearly - it is NOT based on works. I think that the "men from Judea" that were teaching were saying that salvation was by works, they would have been flat-out rejected because the Church KNOWS that salvation is by Jesus alone. There would have been no argument between those teachers and Paul/Barnabas because they would CLEARLY have been in the wrong. It's very easy to see "you must be circumcised to be saved" and think "works salvation". I definitely agree that it strongly leans things in that direction, but I think that the issue of debate in Acts 15 is more nuanced than that.
So then, what IS the question they are dealing with in Acts 15? I think the question here is not "Is salvation by works?" but "Do you have to be Jewish to be saved?" Understand that up until Peter's dream just a few chapters ago, there was very little thought about salvation for Gentiles. Now Gentiles have received salvation. They have received the Holy Spirit. Paul and Barnabas have gone to preach the Good News to them. The question now is: "After you accept Jesus, do you have do all that Jewish stuff?" As I said, to our eyes that can easily look like a question of earning your salvation, but to the early Church it was hard to separate being a child of God and being Jewish because Gentile salvation was so new to them all. To them it was more a question of response - is it necessary after receiving salvation to now act like "God's chosen people (Israel)"? This is what the discussion in Acts 15 revolves around, NOT trying to figure out if salvation is by works or not. Salvation is through Jesus' death and resurrection alone - that was certain.
With this understanding the events and discussion in Acts 15 make more sense. Peter stands up and essentially says: "Look guys, they received the Holy Spirit just like we did - without being Jewish! God cleansed their hearts through faith, not Jewishness" (v. 8-9). He goes on to say that it would be ridiculous to require them to follow the Law because NO ONE has been able to keep it, not even the most perfect Jew (except Jesus!). He affirms that salvation is by grace in verse 11, in essence saying that is the end of the story - Jews and Gentiles are both saved by grace whether they are ATTEMPTING to keep the Law or not.
Paul and Barnabas testify to essentially the same thing: salvation is received and lives are changed apart from being circumcised and following the Law - God works in Gentile hearts in a culturally-Gentile way.
It's important to realize what this chapter does and DOESN'T say. This is a discussion about the actions of Gentile believers. There is no mention of how Jewish believers in Jesus should act. There is no suggestion that they should abandon the keeping of the Law that they have sought for so long. Don't worry though - that will come later, in Hebrews.
In its essence, we are still dealing with this question today: how do people follow God in culturally appropriate ways? We'll deal with James' statements and the letter tomorrow, so stay tuned.