From the Day of Pentecost in AD 31 to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70, cultural tensions built steadily within Judea as the church continued to grow in numbers. This period included the significant conversion of Saul of Tarsus by Jesus Christ while Saul journeyed to Damascus (Acts 9). Though many brethren feared him at first, perhaps not trusting that his conversion was sincere, he became one of God's most effective instruments in all of church history for producing unity of doctrine. He played a vital role in helping the church to decide how to address the major doctrinal disagreement reported in Acts 15.
This issue was of such importance to church doctrine and unity that it was decided by the apostolic leadership in Jerusalem. Peter and James, Jesus' flesh-and-blood brother, convened a major conference to bring the two sides together to discuss the matter and reach a decision. Paul and Barnabas were also present because they represented one side of the issue, and many other elders were present, presenting arguments for one side or the other.
Central to the issue was whether non-Israelite converts to Jesus' way of life should undergo circumcision. However, the issue involved more than mere circumcision, despite one side insisting that such a new convert did not qualify for salvation without it. The issue ultimately involved all the ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant religion given by God through Moses, including such things as the place of the Temple, sacrifices, and the priesthood under the New Covenant. This point was critical to the conference because Jesus made abundantly clear that not even one jot or tittle would pass from the law until all is fulfilled (Matthew 5:18).
Several years before, this issue had been broached in an incident in which Jesus gave an ever-so-brief preview that some changes in the worship of God were in order (John 4:6-26). Jesus had journeyed into Samaria and engaged in a conversation about worship with a woman of Sychar at what the locals called “Jacob's Well.” Jesus actively engaged in the conversation by asking her to give Him a drink from the well, a significant deviation from normal Jewish practice. The woman obliged Him but questioned His speaking openly with a Gentile woman.
Their conversation eventually led to proper worship, and from Jesus' answers, the woman perceived that He was a prophet. Recall that circumcision, required since Abraham, was an act of worship required by God.
In His conversation with the woman (John 4:20-26), Jesus clearly signals that some activities involved in the worship of God would change despite having been required practice since at least the time of the building of the Temple by Solomon, a period of about a thousand years. Also within the context is Jesus' hint that the nature of worship would be changing from rote public ceremonies to more heartfelt devotion and personal interaction with God.
The general term “worship” is first and foremost a verb, an action. Worship is motivated by a desire to honor another. In the Bible, this action is almost always directed toward God, though it is directed at times toward others, even fellow humans and false gods. When worshipping the true God, the worshipper is often described as bowing down, in a posture of listening for instruction and ready to obey, or kneeling, all picturing submission to someone of greater authority and seeking to please him. In an overall sense, then, worship portrays submissive service to another of greater power or dignity.
In Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman, He describes the Father as a Spirit, saying that those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. His statement qualifies true worship as being on a higher, purer level than virtually everyone at the time was accustomed to giving. The fact that “Spirit” is first capitalized, identifying a divine Being to be worshipped, and the next time uncapitalized and coupled with “truth” indicates Jesus is signaling a positive change in approach to worship.
Thus, a link exists between the change signaled by Jesus in John 4:23-24 and the higher, different standard the church council enacted in Acts 15 regarding circumcision and baptism.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Why Hebrews Was Written (Part Four)
The issue in this conference was whether Christians needed to keep the ceremonial aspects of the law of God to have salvation. At no time was the question of keeping the Ten Commandment ever even raised. Because of this, it should be clear that the Sabbath is not a ceremony.
Since believing Pharisees are directly noted in verse 5, the term "circumcision" may very well include the unwritten "Oral Law" that was a part of Pharisaic tradition and not part of the Word of God. In other words, the Pharisees wanted the Gentiles to obey the oral traditions. This is why Peter uses the terms "tempt God" and "yoke of bondage" in verse 10.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 18)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Acts 15:5:
1 Corinthians 16:1-3
2 Peter 2:1