Putting Christians under the law was wrong then, as it is now.
Acts 15 contains the account of the first council of the church, in Jerusalem. The topic was the law, and whether Gentile converts to faith in Jesus need to adhere to the Mosaic law. Despite the clear verdict of the council, there are still those who say that the Christian must keep the law. But just as it was wrong then, so is it wrong now.
The background to the council was that Paul and Barnabas had been in Syrian Antioch, preaching and teaching the gospel. Their work was not unnoticed.“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.’” At 15:1. Here we have an addition to the gospel, faith in Christ, plus the law of Moses. Circumcision came to be emblematic of law-keeping, even though it was given to Abraham. Paul was quite familiar with the law, and Barnabas was a Levite, so no doubt, he too was well-acquainted with the law. But they did not agree with these men teaching circumcision and adherence to the law as a requirement for Christians. “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.” Acts 15:2. The matter had to be settled, and so Paul, Barnabas, and several others were dispatched to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders of the church there.
When the matter came before the council, “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” Acts 15:5. Ethnically, these believers were Jews, and perhaps the weight of tradition, and of their life-long adherence to the law made them say that of course any who come to Jesus must obey the law he gave to the Israel. But the reply of the council was not along those lines. Peter, who was the first to speak the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10, arose and said
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11.
Peter says a few very important things. First, God made no distinction between us (Jews) and them, (the Gentiles), cleansing their hearts by faith. Indeed, one can see the argument the Pharisees were making as a similar one: no distinction between us and them. We keep the law, they, too need to keep the law. But Peter says the law has nothing to do with the salvation that believing Jews enjoy. It is not through the doing of the law, but through faith in Jesus that their hearts were cleansed. Just so the Gentiles, and God clearly demonstrated it by giving to them the Holy Spirit. Cornelius and all who were with him spoke in tongues as evidence of that.
Second, Peter asks why the Pharisees want to put God to test, by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we (Jews) have been able to bear. The Jews were given the law, a privileged position, but they could not keep it. No one can. Peter’s question is a rhetorical one, for the answer is, quite plainly, it would be wrong to put this obligation on the Gentiles since they cannot keep it.
I sometimes hear an objection that these Pharisees were trying to add the law for justification to the gospel; they were not addressing Christian living, walking in holiness at all. And for this, the law is still useful, still remains as something we should pursue and keep. But that won’t square with the text, nor with the rest of the New Testament teaching on the law. These Gentiles were already believers, they had already trusted in Jesus. The question was, having come to faith in Christ, must they now keep the law as a token of their discipleship? Peter and the Council answer in a resounding “no.” As James concludes his address, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” Acts 15:19.
The instructions that the council provides to the Gentiles aren’t stipulations of the Mosaic law per say, rather they fit more as Romans 14 issues. The Gentile believers should abstain from things that would offend Jewish believers. The four items the letter identifies fit into this category. But they certainly can’t be seen as law, or even as a summary of the law, because there is so much that is missing. One can make an argument that the Sabbath command is among the most important in all the law. “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations.” Ex. 31:13. Yet we find not one word about the Sabbath in the letter from the council. Not one word about ensuring that they at least keep the “moral law,” the Ten Commandments.
Whatever we may say about the place of the law in the New Testament (and there is much to say) one thing we cannot say is that believers in Jesus have any obligation to keep the law belonging to the Covenant with Israel at Sinai. Our discipleship in Jesus is not measured by laws that belong to the covenant with Moses, but by the example of Jesus—an example that went so far beyond the demands of the law, to love. But not love your neighbor as yourself, for that, also, is too low of a standard. Rather, it is to love one another as the Lord Jesus has loved us. Only when we contemplate this are we getting at the heart of what Christian discipleship entails.