God’s Timing and the Greater Exodus

God’s timing rarely aligns with ours. When God decides it’s time to move, it’s never what we think is the right time. Allow me to explain by way of an example.

God told Abraham that his descendants would live as foreigners for 400 years and that they would be mistreated and enslaved during that time. God promised to punish the nation that mistreated them and to rescue the people. (Genesis 15:16) Certainly the wise men of Israel living in Egypt prior to the Exodus knew of this promise and they probably put on prophecy conferences and published endless pamphlets claiming that “This is the year. Surely this is the year that God will rescue us!”

And the same thing the next year and the year after that. Some bright individual must have thought, “Well, God said ‘in the fourth generation.’ He didn’t mean the fourth from the promise, so maybe it’s the fourth from our enslavement. And how long is a generation, anyway? Forty years? One hundred years? Is it four hundred years from when we were first enslaved, when we entered Egypt, when Joseph was enslaved, when we were enslaved, when God made the promise to Abraham, or when Abraham first came to Egypt? Oy vey!”

Sound familiar? I’ve heard the same kinds of thing about the establishment of modern Israel and the Second Coming for as long as I can remember. Talk of blood moons and Russian tanks in Lebanon will get little more from me than a skeptically raised eyebrow.

We know from Exodus 12:41 that it was precisely 430 years from the day God gave Abraham the promise until the day the promise was fulfilled, but God told him it would be 400 years. If “400 years” was ever meant to be taken literally, then the clock didn’t start ticking until some unspecified date later, and God didn’t tell anyone when that day was. At least it’s not recorded in Scripture. Prophecy is always this way. If it’s from God, then you can count on it being true, but you can’t necessarily count on this or that day. God does this deliberately, I believe to keep us from thinking we can get away with anything we want so long as we straighten up before the deadline. He gives us signs to watch for, but not a specific date.

Stephen told us in Acts 7:17 that, when the time grew near for God to fulfill His promise, the people multiplied, and only then were they enslaved. The Hebrews lived free and prosperous lives in Egypt until after Joseph died. In fact, when God decided it was time to rescue them, they didn’t even need to be rescued. The fulfillment of God’s promise began when he made them to prosper beyond all expectations so that the Egyptians would become jealous and turn against them. By that time, they had probably decided they didn’t need God’s promise after all. Who would want to leave such a great setup? Sometimes God turns the world against us to remind us of who we are or so that we will be able to appreciate the greater things He has in store for us down the road.

When the time was right, the Hebrews multiplied. The Egyptians grew jealous and enslaved them. The Hebrews cried out to God. Then God destroyed the Egyptians and rescued Israel.

There was nothing any of them could do to stop or even slow the inexorable approach of God’s day of redemption. When God decides that He needs to teach the nations a lesson, He will make sure the lesson is delivered and learned. There are no snow days in this school. The Hebrews could not have failed to multiply, the Egyptians could not have set them free ahead of schedule, and they could not have kept them past the due date.

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. -Deuteronomy 26:8

As with everything else that happened to the patriarchs, the Exodus was a prophecy of an even Greater Exodus yet to come. Jeremiah and Isaiah (among others) write of this future Exodus as a time of great suffering followed by great revival and restoration. As a mixed multitude left Egypt and was absorbed into Israel (Exodus 12:38), so will a vast mixed multitude leave the world and be absorbed into Israel in the last days (Isaiah 60:4-9). As Egypt practically begged the Hebrews to leave and to take as much gold and silver as they could carry with them, so will the world send the throngs of returning Israelites, both natural and adopted, back to the Land along with whatever financial, material, and technical resources might be required to accommodate the massive numbers of new Israelites. (Isaiah 60:9-16) Just as Egypt suffered even more for refusing to let the Hebrews go, so will those nations who refuse to cooperate in the Greater Exodus suffer more than others. (Isaiah 60:12)

When will all this happen? I’m sure that nobody alive today knows. We have been told to watch for signs, but the signs are ambiguous. Wars and rumors of wars have been with us since long before Nimrod built his cities. Will it be one generation from the establishment of the modern state of Israel? How should we count a generation? How do we know that this Israel isn’t just another Maccabean revolt destined fade away or to be crushed by the next iteration of the Roman Empire? I don’t know the answer to these questions and I am suspect of anyone who claims they do.

Here is something I do know, however: Our God lives and His promises are sure. He never fails and even if He waits longer than we would prefer, He never forgets.

Here is another thing you can count on: God’s promises concerning the New Covenant and the Greater Exodus were made only to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. (Jeremiah 31:31-32) There is no “church” in that equation. God’s promises were not made to Rome or Babylon or Washington, D.C. If you want to be a party to the New Covenant, then you must become a Hebrew. (Notice that I did not say you must become a Jew!) You must cross over from Egypt to the Wilderness, from then from the Wilderness to the Promised Land.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means acknowledging your personal failure to live up to God’s standards and throwing yourself on His mercy. Ask His forgiveness and commit to keeping His commandments.

Obedience to God’s Law is not required to leave Egypt. Remember that the Law wasn’t given to Israel until three months after they had crossed the Red Sea and arrived at Sinai. But also remember that God still expected them to keep it. Nobody would be cut off from the nation for an occasional lapse, but total rejection of God’s commandments did bring either death or being “cut off from the people.” We don’t obey to be saved from sin (Egypt). We obey because we are grateful for God’s salvation and because we love Him.

I strongly recommend reading all of Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah 56 for some perspective on God’s covenant with Israel and what He requires of gentiles who wish to be made party to it. “Let no foreigner who is bound to Adonai say, ‘Adonai will surely exclude me from His people.’ …And foreigners who bind themselves to Adonai to minister to him, to love the name of Adonai, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—-these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer.”

With freedom and citizenship comes responsibility. We are no longer slaves to sin (Egypt), but we have voluntarily made ourselves slaves to our Creator and Messiah Yeshua. If we serve Him faithfully, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.

The first Exodus was merely a dress rehearsal for the Greater Exodus described in Isaiah 60.

You Will Go Out in Joy

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the Lord’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.

Isaiah 55:12-13

There is no escaping pain. To one degree or another, everyone hurts, everyone suffers. No one can say why one person suffers in one way and another suffers in some other way, but pain and trouble are part of living. Without strain, our bones and muscles would never grow strong. Without sickness, our immune systems would never learn. Without conflict, our hearts would never learn what it means to love.

In the midst of our struggle, it can be easy to forget that God still sees us, but never believe that He has abandoned you. Your pain is real. Your scars might never fade. But God has promised that He will reward those who remain faithful and that reward will be greater than anything you might have lost. He will exchange your thorns for firs, your iron for silver, your bronze for gold. (Is 55 & 60)

And He will do this because fulfillment of promises and rewards for faithfulness are an intrinsic part of His name. It is simply who He is.

In place of thorns, God will grow firs. In place of briers, He will grow myrtle. For the sake of His name.

Authority and Change

Do not remove a boundary stone. Proverbs 22:28

Do not remove a boundary stone.

.

Deuteronomy 19:14
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour’s landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it.

Ecclesiastes 10:5-9
There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler:
Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.
I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth.
He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it; and whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him.
Whoso removeth stones shall be hurt therewith; and he that cleaveth wood shall be endangered thereby.

Proverbs 24:21 My son, fear thou the LORD and the king: and meddle not with them that are given to change.

Malachi 3:6 For I am the LORD, I change not…

Have you noticed that, every time you get a new CEO or vice president of whatever, he wants to turn everything on its head even before he really understands the culture of his new business home? Reorganize, restructure, reinvent. It seems to me that it’s just a lot of wasted time. He should see if he can get the job done with the current structure first, and then only change the things that really need to be changed. Otherwise, he might just reorg himself right out of a job.

The same thing goes for everything else in life. Some change is good: growth and improvement, course corrections, repentance, etc. But don’t go moving boundaries that don’t need to be moved. If God said to do things in such-and-such a way, then do them that way until God says otherwise. Don’t move life’s boundaries just because you don’t like them or don’t know their purpose.

God’s Get Rich Slow Scheme

This week’s Torah reading (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, aka “Re’eh”) talks about how to get rich. Fantastic! The best part is that you get to pick between blessings and curses. Who wouldn’t choose blessings over curses?

Here’s how you make your choice known to God:

  1. Worship God His way, not your way, and not in any pagan ways. Whether you are native-born Israelite or grafted in, no paganism allowed. Destroy every trace & burn all the bridges that lead back that way.
  2. Be careful what you eat. Don’t eat blood. Don’t eat creepy crawlies. Don’t eat pigs and other forbidden animals. Don’t eat blood. And especially don’t eat blood as part of any religious rituals. Got that? No blood.
  3. Don’t listen to false prophets.
  4. Have 3 big parties every year, paid for by the tithes of what you’ve produced from your land in 2 out of 3 years.
  5. In the third year, gather up all your tithes and share them with the landless, orphans, and widows of your own town. This is on the honor system, but don’t be stingy.
  6. You have to give to get. The secret to being blessed is in blessing others.Forgive all debts to fellow believers/Hebrews (whether native-born Israelites or grafted in) at the end of every 7th year. Don’t be stingy. Lend to your poor neighbors at zero percent interest with the full expectation that they will pay you back no matter how much time is left. If they don’t pay you back on time, don’t hold it against them.
  7. Release all Hebrew slaves–not that there’s a lot of explicit slavery in America these days, but the principle still counts–at the end of the 6th year in the 7 year cycle. Don’t be stingy here either. Since they weren’t able to work for themselves, send them out with a year’s worth of supplies. They can live off that until they get themselves back on their feet or they can use it to pay off debt before the end of the 7th year.
  8. In whatever way God blesses you, be sure to bless others.
  9. Rejoice! Especially during Sukkot in the Fall. Throw a party and invite everyone: native, grafted-in, orphans, widows, Levites, servants, family, and neighbors. And don’t be stingy!

You probably noticed a trend. Here’s the short version: Fear God and be generous.

Whatever you’ve heard on television or Facebook, this is a principle that every filthy rich person will tell you: give, give, and give some more. Wealth is never a zero-sum operation. There’s always more where it came from. Blessings flow from God like water through a pipe. What happens if a pipe is capped? The water stops flowing. You are a pipe. Let your wealth flow out to keep God’s wealth flowing in.

But wait! There’s more…

If I only wanted to make myself or you feel good, I’d stop there. But I’m not.

These blessings aren’t necessarily directed at individuals. They’re directed at the nation of Israel, the native-born and the grafted-in. (Not the State of Israel. That’s something else altogether.)

I’m not saying this won’t work for individuals. It clearly does! The principal of “Give-to-Get” is the very foundation of the wealth-building wisdom of Zig Ziglar and many other famous teachers of personal economics. (You can have as much as you want if you only help as many others as possible to get what they want first.) After all, you can’t have a wealthy nation without wealthy individuals.

This is just another layer of the selflessness required to be an effective conduit of God’s blessings. Do you want to be blessed? Then bless everyone around you with no expectation of getting anything back, either from them or God. I guarantee you will be blessed abundantly, but I can’t guarantee exactly what form that blessing will take. Even so, if you make wise financial decisions in addition to being generous with your resources, the chances are very good that your resources will continue to multiply.

If you want God’s continued blessings, keep the pipe straight (obey God’s Law) and don’t cap it off (be generous).

The Faith and Prayers of America’s Founding Fathers

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve had something of an obsession with both prayer and American history for some years now. I have lots of questions for God about prayer and faith, so I spend a lot of time reading and studying about it. It can be tough, because frequently I don’t “feel” a lot of faith. I try to keep praying anyway and I encourage you to do to the same. That’s one reason that I’m giving away the Family Prayers ebook to all subscribers this and next month. (Subscribe here.)

I’m working on another project now, and I could really use your help!

Do you read a lot of American history, especially contemporary works and autobiographies? I’m collecting the prayers of America’s founding fathers (and mothers!). I would really love to hear about any that you’ve come across. Do you have any favorites?

I know there is much controversy over the religious beliefs of some of the Founders too. Were they deists? Were some of them even atheists? If some of these questions are bothering you, leave your thoughts, comments, and questions below. I’ll see what I can find out.

Thank you!!!

613 Ways to Love Your Neighbor

613 ways to shower your neighbor with blessings by keeping Torah

“And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers.”
(Deuteronomy 7:12 ESV)

Deuteronomy 7:12-8:9 contains a long list of blessings that God promised to Israel in exchange for obedience to Torah. These blessing should be understood to apply to the nation as a whole and not necessarily to every individual within the nation. In order for the nation to be blessed in these ways, many more individuals than otherwise must be blessed as well, because a nation is a group of individuals connected by blood, culture, tradition, and religion. As you narrow your focus to a single community, family, or individual, however, you cannot necessarily say that this person is well because he kept God’s commands and that person is not well because he did not. The entire book of Job refutes the idea that a person’s spiritual state can be determined by his physical state.

None of this is to say that it does not matter how we behave. It matters quite a lot. Thou shalt love yourself is not one of the two greatest commandments, but rather love God and love your neighbor. We love God primarily through our obedience. We obey His commands because we love Him, not because He promised to give us stuff.

As we love God, we love our neighbor—and here is the answer to so many difficult questions—also by keeping God’s commandments. The truth of this statement is obvious in some commandments, such as care for orphans, widows, and the indigent, but it is harder to discern in commandments such as those that concern lepers, sacrifice, diet, and sexual morality. This passage draws them all together. If we, as a people, a collection of individuals, obey God’s commandments, we, as a people, will reap the benefits of collective obedience, and what is more loving of a neighbor than to bless him with good health, financial prosperity, and many children? If we want our families to be healthy and productive, then we ought to live holy lives and teach others to do likewise.

This is an abbreviated list of the things that God promised to Israel in return for obedience to Torah:

  • God’s faithfulness
  • Steadfast love
  • Fertility and children
  • Productive farms and ranches
  • Good health
  • Military victory over enemies
  • Peace within the nation’s borders

What blessings are within our power to grant our neighbors by our behavior!

P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe for updates, anniversaries from American history, and links to interesting, enlightening, and useful stuff from around the Internet.

The Multifaceted Law of God

1 Timothy 1:9 is a favorite verse of those who say that the Torah doesn’t apply to believers in Jesus. It’s a very poorly thought out position, however, because it’s contradicted by the very same verse.

(8) Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, (9) understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, (10) the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, (11) in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
(1 Timothy 1:8-11)

What does this passage actually say?

  1. The Law is good if it is used according to its intended purpose.
  2. The Law was written down (“laid down”) for those who didn’t already keep it, because only those who don’t already keep the Law need it to be spelled out for them.
  3. Anyone who practices or teaches anything that is contrary to sound doctrine still needs the Law.
  4. Sound doctrine is in harmony with the gospel that Paul taught.
  5. All of these things are contrary to both sound doctrine and the gospel: a) not keeping the Law, b) disrespecting parents, c) murder, d) sexual immorality, e) slaving, f) lying, g) oath-breaking.
  6. The “just” behave in a way that is in accordance with sound doctrine. They keep the Law, they respect their parents, et cetera.

In other words, the Law was written down because people weren’t keeping it, therefore the Law no longer applies to us and we don’t need to keep it. Wait…what? That doesn’t make sense! How did this very clear passage come to be understood to say something completely opposite of what it actually says?

Paul often wrote of one aspect of Torah or another, assuming that his readers understood the context. This can be very confusing for people separated by enormous barriers of time, culture, and language. We only have one side of these conversations and partial records at that.

The truth is that Torah serves multiple purposes. It is tutor, friend, and jailor. It is both life and death. Which role it fills at any given moment depends on where you are in your life’s journey and how far you are from your Creator.

The Hebrews’ journey from Egypt to Canaan illustrates some of Torah’s shifting roles. They were slaves in Egypt until God saved them by making a way through the Red Sea. In the wilderness, they received the Torah, developed a relationship with God, and trained in the ways of faith and righteousness. Finally, God made a way through the Jordan into Cannan to take possession of their inheritance and begin fulfilling their true calling in God’s plan.

http://i49.photobucket.com/albums/f292/schmoeter/American%20torah/RolesOfTorah.jpg

Three roles of Torah in the lifecycle of a believer in Yeshua.

The slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt is like the slavery we all suffer under sin. Torah reveals our low state and prompts us to cry out to God for mercy. It leads us to a knowledge of our need for a Savior, and if we don’t reach out to Him, it is a witness against us at the final judgment. The Hebrew slaves didn’t yet know the details of God’s commands, but like the sinner who hears the call to repent, they knew that they weren’t free. Only when we become aware of our chains and beg forgiveness does God lead us to freedom. He doesn’t demand anything of us at that point except humility and faith. “Stand back,” Moses said at the shore of the Sea, “and behold the salvation of Adonai!” With nothing but faith to walk, they crossed the Red Sea and left the defeated Egyptians behind. Sinai was still ahead in the wilderness.

Once across the water, God began to teach the Hebrews how to live. “Keep the Sabbath,” He said, then He led them to Sinai where He tried to write His Law on their hearts. They weren’t ready to receive it as their hearts where still too hard and scarred from sin, so He wrote it on tablets of stone and instructed Moses to write it in greater detail in a book. They spent forty years wandering in the wilderness in the direct presence of God, learning day to day how to live by His standards. This is like our first years as a new believer, learning the basics of righteous behavior and trading old habits for new. It takes time, practice, and discipleship to mature us into adults who can stand on their own.

Finally God said, “You have been wandering on this mountain long enough. It’s time to grow up.” God doesn’t want us to stay in the wilderness forever; it’s just basic training for life in the Promised Land. Israel never could have fulfilled her calling by continually wandering in the desert. Having accepted God’s salvation and then learning His Law, they had to cross the Jordan, dispossess the Canaanites (who had rejected God’s Law), and occupy the land.

When the conquest was complete, Torah would take on a whole new meaning. Many commands state, “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving to you, you will…” These commands could not be fully obeyed in the wilderness. No longer having to develop a godly culture from scratch, the Israelites were now to live it in full. Torah gives us the framework and the power to fulfill our true callings in God’s Kingdom, to live productively as a people serving God and as a priesthood to the world. Without it, our relationships flounder and our ministries decay, like the people of Judah before King Josiah revived Torah-living and created a program to reteach it to the nation.

  • While we are in slavery to sin, God’s Torah convicts us and drives us to call out to Him.
  • While we are new in our relationship to the Father, Torah teaches us and prepares us for ministry.
  • When we are adults, living out our divine calling in the world, Torah gives us answers to tough questions, keeps us from getting too far from the right path, and continually challenges us to climb higher, to live ever more righteously.

In different stages of our lives, God’s Law serves a different purpose. It can’t enslave someone whom God has set free, nor can it free anyone who is enslaved. Torah is the slave-master of sinners and a wise counselor to the righteous, death to the disobedient and life to the obedient. As Paul wrote, “Now we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully.”

The Conditions Under Which God Sent Israel to War

In Deuteronomy 1-3, Moses recounts to Israel their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, including all of their triumphs, tragedies, and embarrassments. “Remember when we did this and we went there, and then we fought those people, and I told you this thing, then you did that, and we had that other war with those other people, and God was really mad at you about this thing, and don’t mess with these people, but don’t be afraid of these others…” It’s all quite a story.

Most of Torah is concerned with how people are to relate to each other and to God as individuals, but this passage is much more interested in how Israel had behaved as a nation in relation to other nations. There were essentially three ways that God told Israel to treat with the peoples they encountered:

  1. They attacked you. Destroy them.
  2. I’ve given their land to you. Destroy them and take it.
  3. If they leave you alone, you leave them alone.

Does this resemble American foreign policy? Not even remotely. We are constantly meddling in the internal affairs of foreign nations for any number of reasons. We invade countries all over the world because we don’t like how they do business or how they treat their own people or their neighbors. The precedent that God set with Israel and her neighbors is simple: If they’re not actively attacking you, then stay out of their business.

It’s not isolationism to avoid military adventurism. Would you call a neighbor antisocial if he didn’t break down your door and shoot one of your children before borrowing a tool? You don’t have to shoot and bomb people to have a relationship with them.

It’s not a bad idea to have a “big stick” at hand, though, just in case.

Peace is not isolationist

Despite Appearances, the Foundations Can Never Be Destroyed

We often hear Psalm 11:3 quoted in despair.

If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?

People repeat this one verse as if all hope will be lost if we don’t defeat this new law, win this election, save this marriage, but how many of us have read the entire chapter? It doesn’t say what we often seem to think it says.

David wrote of what appeared to be a hopeless situation, “The wicked are ready to destroy all those who are pure of heart. If all support is gone, what can the righteous do to prevent it?” But he didn’t stop there. He followed that with an observation on the reality that is hidden behind what we see and a profound statement of faith. To paraphrase, he wrote,

Adonai is still on His throne in Heaven and, although it appears that He has closed His eyes to our suffering, this is only a test for our benefit. He will destroy the violent and the wicked; a violent end is their inescapable destiny. But He loves the righteous and He is always watching over them.

Whatever you may be suffering, however evil your circumstances might appear, God still sees you. The sense of abandonment that you are experiencing is a test. Hold fast to your faith, because God has promised that the end of the faithful will be glory and life, while the ultimate demise of all oppressors, no matter how powerful they appear to us right now, will always be an ignoble and permanent grave.

For the righteous ADONAI loves righteousness and His countenance is toward the upright.

God will never forsake the righteous. All things work to the good of those who trust in Him.

Does Acts 15 Say We Can Ignore God’s Law?

The first century church dealt with a recurring conflict between missionaries to the gentiles and a group that is sometimes called “the Party of the Circumcision.” Acts 15:1 tells us that

…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.”

The rest of the chapter discusses this controversy and how the Jerusalem Council responded. I don’t like to reproduce large blocks of text from the Bible here, but I think it’s necessary because the council’s ruling is easy to misinterpret without considering the full context.

Act 15:1-33 (1) 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.”  (2) And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.  (3) So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers.  (4) When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them.  (5) But 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.”  (6) The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

(7) And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “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.  (8) And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,  (9) and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  (10) 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?  (11) But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”  (12) And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

(13) After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me.  (14) Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.  (15) And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,  (16) “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins,  and I will restore it,  (17) that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,  says the Lord, who makes these things  (18) known from of old.’  (19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God,  (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.  (21) For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

(22) Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers,  (23) with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings.  (24) Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,  (25) it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,  (26) men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (27) We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.  (28) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:  (29) that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

(30) So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter.  (31) And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement.  (32) And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.  (33) And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.

I can see how it might appear to the casual reader as if the Jerusalem council ruled that the Torah does not apply to gentile believers. But a reader more interested in the broader context and a fuller understanding of what he reads might notice a few details that seem to indicate otherwise.

First, let’s define the controversy.

Verse one says that some men came from Judea and told the new gentile believers that, in order to be saved, they must be circumcised according to the “custom of Moses.” Paul, Barnabas, and some others went to Jerusalem (in Judea) to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders (v2). When they had brought the Jerusalem council up to date on their mission to the gentiles and had described the controversy at hand, some of the same group of men were there and reaffirmed what had been told to the gentiles (v5). These might have been the “others” who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas, possibly to ensure that both sides of the argument would be represented fairly.

This is the question that the Jerusalem Council convened to answer: Must the gentile converts be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved and should they be ordered to keep the law of Moses? As you can see, there are actually two questions, and if you are unfamiliar with the written Torah, it will be very easy for you to misunderstand the nature of these questions from the text in Acts alone.

Note that verse one states “circumcised according to the custom (ethos in Greek) of Moses.” There is no general command anywhere in Torah to circumcise grown men. There were specific circumstances in which the Hebrews had neglected the command to circumcise their infant sons, and so they rectified that by circumcising themselves as adults, but those were one time events. Nowhere did Moses write, “If a foreigner wishes to be grafted into Israel, he must be circumcised,” or “a grown man who was not circumcised as a child must be circumcised as an adult before he can be acceptable to God.” The Law only stipulates that a newborn boy must be circumcised on the eighth day.  This “custom of Moses” was just a custom of men and came with a long list of extra-biblical do’s and dont’s known as the Eighteen Measures of Shammai (briefly mentioned in this Jewish Encyclopedia article). By demanding that new believers must be circumcised in order to be saved, they were adding to God’s Law, something He expressly forbade them to do.

Verse five says that the Pharisees also wanted to order the new converts to keep the whole Law of Moses, something that they clearly weren’t even doing themselves. As Yeshua told them years earlier, “By your traditions you make void the commandments of God.” In fact, since their circumcision was only a man-made tradition, it’s very likely that the laws they intended weren’t the Law of Moses at all, but either the Eighteen Measures or else the full body of draconian and contradictory Jewish law. Peter’s statement (v10) confirms that this is almost surely the case:

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?
(Acts 15:10 ESV)

How could God’s Law as delivered through Moses be such an onerous burden when God Himself says that it was not?

Deuteronomy 30:9-16 ESV (9) The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, (10) when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (11) “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (12) It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (14) But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (15) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. (16) If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

How could they have been unable to bear the burden of God’s Law about which David wrote such stirring words:

Psalms 119:44-48 ESV (44) I will keep your law (Hebrew: Torah) continually, forever and ever, (45) and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (46) I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, (47) for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. (48) I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.

So what was the yoke that the Apostles and their fathers couldn’t bear except for the innumerable regulations that lawyers had piled on top of the Divine Law? Yeshua was continually rebuking them for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), and this was just more of the same. The “party of the circumcision,” as Paul would refer to them, wanted to make all of these new gentile believers into full-fledged Jews, complete with a Jewish ritual conversion and all the rules and regulations that were impossible to keep and often in direct contradiction to the written Torah.

The actual question at hand was not whether the Law of God (aka the Mosaic Law) applied to the gentile converts, but whether they ought to be required to keep the Jewish traditions that had been added to God’s Law.

Peter urged the council to reject this proposal. What was too difficult for the Jews who already knew the Torah well would surely be even more difficult for the gentiles, and many would turn away in discouragement.

This is James’ final ruling on the issue:

Acts 15:19-20 ESV “(19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”

What did the Jerusalem Council really say about gentile converts and keeping the Law?Clearly he rejected the idea that the converts must be circumcised to effect salvation, but did he go so far as to reject Torah observance altogether? It almost reads that way! But what about keeping the Sabbath, stealing, coveting, dishonoring parents, and oath breaking? If you refrain from sexual immorality, but hate your brother, have you really done well (v29)? Of course not! Paul, Peter, John, and James all wrote strongly against a number of immoral behaviors that James didn’t even mention, so we know that James didn’t mean for them to interpret his ruling as license to commit everything under the sun so long as it didn’t violate one of these four prohibitions. That would be putting God to a far more severe test than the legalism he was refuting.

So what did he mean? The vital clue in the very next verse is usually ignored:

“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Acts 15:21 ESV

James said that they should not trouble the gentiles, but only tell them to avoid these four things, because Moses is taught in every synagogue every Sabbath.

The Apostles had rejected the Circumcision’s premise that a ritual conversion was necessary and had then gone much further than anyone had expected. Not only did converts not need to be circumcised and keep all of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions, but they didn’t even need to keep God’s Law in order to be saved! This was truly radical! But it wasn’t the end.

What were they to do with their salvation now that it was assured apart from circumcision? This is the question that James was really answering. Let me give you my amplified version of his ruling:

“Let’s not discourage the gentiles with a treatise on every moral particular. We’ll keep it simple and easy with just four really important things that will facilitate fellowship between Jews and gentiles. They can progress from there by learning over time just like Jewish children for many generations, hearing Moses read aloud and discussed in the synagogue every Sabbath.” James’ words embodied a great principle of human nature: demand too much, too fast, and you’ll get nothing at all. You’ll break people instead of advancing them.

The controversy addressed in Acts 15 was never about whether gentile believers in Yeshua ought to keep God’s Law as given through Moses. It was about conditions for salvation and for acceptance into fellowship.

This is the very essence of God’s grace: He loves us right where we are, and we don’t have to keep any set of rules to be saved. His grace is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t need to be circumcised, dunked, shaved, bathed, anointed, slain in the spirit, or sprinkled for His grace to be effective at covering over all of our sins and making us His own. All we have to do to be saved is throw ourselves on His mercy, begging His forgiveness and throwing our sins at His feet.

But the liberty we have in Messiah does not mean we are free to make void the Law of God. As Paul said to this idea, “Heaven forbid!” It only means that we are not condemned by our failures as we progress toward the mark of perfect faithfulness. We are free to obey God without fear that every misstep will send us plunging into the abyss.

Start where you are and work to do a little better every day. And if you do these things, you’ll do well.