Acts 11:2

Revolutionary War Tribute, Utah Capitol

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, Acts 11:2

Note: You can listen to today’s commentary courtesy of our friends at “Bible in Ten” podcast. (Click Here to listen).

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Previously, it was noted that the apostles and brethren in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. Exciting news indeed. With that noted, it now says, “And when Peter came up to Jerusalem.” It had previously said that Cornelius had asked Peter to stay a few days (Acts 10:48). It is after this unstated amount of time that Peter now went up to Jerusalem. This is where the apostles stayed and tended to the affairs of the believers.

Upon arriving in Jerusalem, it next says “those of the circumcision contended with him.” The words seem out of place. As the only non-circumcised believers so far mentioned were either in Ethiopia or Caesarea, every other believer is, by default, a circumcised Jew. Therefore, there must be a reason why they are singled out as “the circumcision.”

The reason for the contention is not stated until the next verse, and so it is getting ahead in the analysis to debate exactly what that means, but it is necessary now. There are several possibilities for Luke recording it this way:

  • They are those mentioned in Acts 10:45 who went with Peter and saw the conversion of the Gentiles. There, they are called “those of the circumcision.” Peter stayed while they left, returning with the news throughout Judea even to Jerusalem.
  • It is referring to any Jew (born as a Jew or converted to Judaism) who had converted to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and they are simply being noted in a different category than the other Jews.
  • They are those Jews who had converted to faith in Jesus but who were adamant about the necessity for continued observance of the law and of the rites of conversion, such as circumcision.
  • Luke is now using the term in a new manner, setting a distinction between any circumcised person and any non-circumcised person. This distinction is set to define who is a Jew and who is a Gentile, regardless of how they conduct their life, even if the matter of circumcision in a non-believing Jew needs to be more fully explained later.

In short, and which will be evaluated again in the next verse, they believe Peter defiled himself by going in with those who were uncircumcised. Understanding this, the first option is wrong. Those who went with Peter were privy to the details of his trance, and they were certainly aware of what had transpired afterward. It is not sound to think they would argue against Peter concerning a matter they were also intimately involved in.

The second option is incorrect because it would make an improper distinction between those Jews who believed and those who did not. The issue is physical circumcision, not the spiritual circumcision of the heart referred to elsewhere in Scripture.

The third option is a distinction that seems to be referred to elsewhere, such as in Galatians 2 –

“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12 for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.” Galatians 2:11-13

This is seen in Acts 11:2 as well. Thus, it appears that a distinction is being made by separating Peter and those with him from a group that is adamant about adherence to the law by calling them “the circumcision.” But that is a point of theology based on their status as circumcised Jews, not a separate category altogether. This is certain because Peter is specifically noted as an apostle to those who are circumcised in Galatians 2 –

“But from those who seemed to be something—whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man—for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.” Galatians 2:6-10

Understanding this, and also understanding that the term can later be applied to the third category, but at this early date before the matter is settled, the answer to who “the circumcision” is that Luke is referring to in Acts 11:2, the fourth option is correct. It is a term that is now being used in order to distinguish between any person who is circumcised according to the cultural standards of Israel, expressly setting them apart from the Gentile world. This is certain because Paul says this in Colossians 4 –

“Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, with Mark the cousin of Barnabas (about whom you received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. These are my only fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are of the circumcision; they have proved to be a comfort to me.” Colossians 4:10, 11

Paul makes a distinction between who is circumcised as a Jew and who is not, meaning they are Gentiles, in his epistle. A separate category of who is a “true Jew” is defined by Paul in the book of Romans, but that is a theological argument which is still based on the physical mark of circumcision in relation to the spiritual “circumcision of the heart” that is also required to be in a right standing with God.

Life application: The physical circumcision of the Jewish people sets them apart from the Gentile world. Just because most Jews do not believe in Messiah, and thus they are not currently in a right standing with God, it does not mean that they are not Jews. They are just not completed Jews. They remain separate from God in one manner (failure to enter into the New Covenant), but they remain united to God in another (bound to Him through the Mosaic Covenant).

The lack of faithfulness of the Jewish nation (meaning Israel) to come to Jesus Christ does not negate God’s having covenanted with them through Moses. His words to them will be performed. They will be brought into the New Covenant.

However, until they do come to Him through Jesus, they will continue to suffer the consequences of their agreement to the Mosaic Code. They are bound to it, even if they do not adhere to it. God bound Himself to it as well. Israel’s unfaithfulness in no way negates God’s faithfulness. This is the main error in thinking for most of the church. Both Israel and the church will eventually learn that God’s promises and His election will stand.

Heavenly Father, how faithful You are. When we fail You, it is a mark against us. But You will never fail us. Your faithfulness reaches to the skies and Your love and tender mercies to the objects of Your affection are never-ending. Thank You for Your tender care of Your unfaithful creatures. Amen.