A follower on Twitter asked me about Colossians 2:16 last week.
I’m including the rest of the chapter here for context:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Does Colossians 2 Cancel the Torah?
Does this mean all of God’s commandments about food and drink, sabbaths and feast days, etc., have been nullified? Not unless you think God’s instructions are “elemental spirits of the world”, “human precepts and teachings”, and “self-made religion” with only “an appearance of wisdom”. Certainly many atheists would agree with that, but I don’t see how anyone who accepts the Bible as authoritative could.
Have you heard the phrase “Torah terrorist”? It jokingly refers to someone who is always telling other people they’re doing it wrong. Paul was saying, “Don’t let people condemn you for not eating, drinking, or keeping a feast day in exactly the way they think it should be done. It’s okay if you don’t do everything exactly right or if you disagree with someone else about the details of what’s good for food and what isn’t.”
Paul was addressing two categories of erroneous teaching:
The elevation of the forms of religion over the substance. See verse 17. For example, many people were teaching that new converts must be circumcised in order to be considered truly saved. There is NO commandment in Torah for a grown man to be circumcised in order to be considered an Israelite. You can’t eat the Passover unless you are circumcised, but otherwise, the only commandment is to circumcise newborn boys on the 8th day.
This is directly related to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts. New converts shouldn’t be expected to keep the whole Torah perfectly, let alone all of the man-made rules that we have added to Torah. Start with the basics and learn the rest as you go, not letting anyone condemn you for the things you haven’t mastered yet.
The elevation of man-made tradition over God-given instruction, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or pagan. As an example, consider the rabbinic rule against eating dairy and meat together. Some people will say you are sinning if you eat a cheeseburger, but this is based only on the opinion of some rabbis, not on what the Torah actually says.
Other examples would be the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, mandatory attendance at church, the celebration of Easter, etc. These are man-made traditions with little or no foundation in Scripture, yet many will insist you can’t possibly be a Christian or a Jew unless you follow the Pope or the rabbis or your local pastor instead of the clear commandments of God.
Don’t let those people pile their rules on your shoulders as if you are beholden to their weak consciences. Their rules, no matter how wise they sound, are not even a “shadow of the things to come”, but only a shadow of their own minds.
And don’t let people condemn you for being imperfect. God knows we all sin. We all fall short. I think him all the time that my salvation does not depend on my perfect obedience, but on my repentance and on his grace to forgive.
Live in peace with those people as much as you can, but don’t let them poison your relationship with the Father, with Yeshua, or with your fellow believers.
There are other arguments and New Testament passages that people frequently quote when they attempt to disprove Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:17-19, but before I address some of those, I probably ought to define the topic.
What does clean and unclean mean?
God’s rules aren’t arbitrary. There is always a reason for them, and that reason is always for our ultimate good. What makes an animal unclean is still a difficult question to answer, though, because the Bible doesn’t spell it out.
About the only thing we can be sure of is that “unclean” (tamei) doesn’t mean soiled or sinful. Uncleanness refers to a spiritual impurity, and is most often associated with death or a loss of life-force: blood, disease, corpses, graves, and bodily discharges.
Nothing in the Bible says “This is what makes an animal unclean,” but it does list some unclean animals and describe characteristics of others.
Leviticus 11 lists the basic rules of what animals God doesn’t want us to eat.
Land animals that are cloven-hoofed and chew the cud are food. Any animal with one and not the other is not food.
Water animals that have fins and scales are food. Anything under the water with neither or one and not the other is not food.
Birds of prey and carrion birds are not food.
Certain other birds are not food, but due to translation uncertainties and a lack of defining characteristics in Torah, we have no way besides inference and tradition to tell us about birds that aren’t mentioned. (“Living the Law: Reinforcing the Tradition with a Palpable Precedent” by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan is an interesting article if you can find it.) Songbirds and wading birds (herons, storks, etc) are probably out, while pigeons, chickens, and turkeys are acceptable.
Insects and other creepy crawlies are not food except for four types of grasshoppers and/or locusts that have over-sized rear legs for jumping.
Anything that walks on paws or slithers on its belly is not food.
That leaves most ruminants, most fish, and many birds as suitable material for stew, salad, or stir-fry, but reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish are not allowed.
There are six common objections to a Christian or Messianic Jew to keeping kosher:
1.“Those rules were just because they didn’t have refrigeration. Now we know about tape worms and trichinosis and we keep everything frozen or at least cold before we cook it.” Beef spoils if left unrefrigerated for too long, and chicken is notoriously dangerous. Yet both are kosher. The rules for clean and unclean animals have nothing to do with safety or refrigeration.
2. “Jesus made all foods clean. Jesus died so we don’t have to obey those laws anymore.” Actually, Jesus never said anything of the sort. When debating the Pharisees about whether or not it is acceptable to eat food with unwashed hands when that food would otherwise be perfectly kosher, he told them that they were so concerned about their own traditions that they were ignoring God’s actual laws.His central point was this: What difference does it make if a man eats with dirty hands (or eats pork or lobster!) if he is a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer? If you put something into your mouth, your body eventually purges it. If you put something into your heart, however, there is no automatic, natural process to remove it.Jesus didn’t die so you could eat bacon. He died so you could have eternal life in spite of eating bacon.
3. “That was only for the Dispensation of Law. God told Noah he could eat any animal. That changed when God gave the law at Mt. Sinai, then it changed again when Jesus rose from the grave. Now we are in the Dispensation of Grace and can ignore the Law of Moses.” Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 12:20 that the Israelites could eat whatever meat they wanted, but just 2 chapters later he repeated the list of things that God didn’t want them to eat.Sometimes one passage, when removed from the context of the whole Bible, appears to contradict one or another passage. That’s an illusion caused by our preconceptions and inability (refusal?) to consider those same passages from a more holistic perspective that harmonizes all of Scripture as a unified whole. Everyone reads the Bible through a lens that colors their interpretations. The problem with most people is that they don’t know it, and act as if their vision is crystal clear with no possibility of tint or distortion. Humility is a rare commodity.
When you read about Noah after the Flood or Peter and Paul after the resurrection, consider–as an intellectual exercise if nothing else–reading those stories as if you believed that not a single letter could ever be removed from God’s Law. Do some of the words have alternate meanings (they all do) that work in the new context? Are you able to understand those passages in that light? If so, then it’s just possible that it is the correct light.
4. “Those are ceremonial laws. They don’t apply to us anymore. Only the moral laws are still in effect.” I have never yet seen a reasonable defense of such a distinction in the Law. There is no civil vs ceremonial vs criminal or any such division in Scripture. It’s an invention of man. To the contrary, God said, “Do not take anything away from my laws nor add anything to them.” On one side are hazy conjectures and complicated theories. On the other side are several very clear, unambiguous statements from God. I’ll go with the latter.
5. “All of the Law of Moses was abolished. It was entirely replaced with a new set of morals defined by Jesus and fleshed out by Paul: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he quoted the Torah, and he said that all of the rest of God’s words hang on just two commandments. He didn’t say that the rest of Torah was no longer relevant. He didn’t add or subtract anything at all from the Torah. He didn’t even say anything new, although it might have been new to the Pharisees with their burdensome traditions: Matthew 22:37-40: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (40) On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus (aka Yeshua) wasn’t telling them anything new. He was just quoting Moses, words with which they were already very familiar: Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Leviticus 19:18b You shall love your neighbor as yourself…
Earlier I mentioned something else Yeshua said about the Law of Moses: Matthew 5:17-19: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Note two things about that statement: 1) Whatever “fulfill” means here, it does not mean to destroy. 2) Nothing can be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.
6. “The Law of Moses is still valid and still applies, but only to Jews. It was never intended to apply to gentile Christians.”As far as salvation is concerned, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, the New Covenant was not promised to gentiles. It was promised only to the houses of Israel and Judah. See Jeremiah 31:31.Those of us, who were once Gentiles, have been grafted into the tree of Israel, not the other way around. There is only one body in the Messiah, one law, and one nation: Israel. If you want to be part of that body, then you have to become an Israelite, which means that, even if this objection were true, the Law must apply to all true believers in Yeshua. (Notice that I did NOT say you have to become Jewish.)
There are many strong-sounding arguments for ignoring God’s instructions regarding which animals are acceptable as food, and I don’t have time to hash them all out in this one article. Stick around, though. I’ll get to them eventually.
I assure you that every argument that relies on interpreting some Bible verse to mean the opposite of what Yeshua said in Matthew 5 falls apart when you start assuming that Yeshua knew what he was talking about.
Addendum on unclean birds
There’s a lot of understandable confusion about what flying animals (includes more than just birds) are clean and unclean. The Hebrew words that describe the various birds in Leviticus 11 are obscure, and translators can’t agree on what flying animals are actually listed.
Here’s a chart showing how some popular translations render the list:
As you can see, there is unanimous agreement on some points and total chaos on others. We also classify flying creatures differently than the ancient Hebrews did. For example, we differentiate between flying mammals and birds. They didn’t. They made distinctions between various kinds of birds of prey that we can’t even decipher now.
Here is what we can say with relative certainty:
Definitely Not Kosher
Any kind of vulture, buzzard, condor, etc.
Any kind of raptor, like a hawk, eagle, falcon, or anything else we would normally call a “bird of prey”.
Any kind of raven or grackle.
Storks, herons, and pelicans.
Lapwings and hoopoes.
Bats and all other flying mammals.
Probably Not Kosher
Based on those that are definitely not kosher, I think it’s safe to presume that these birds are also unclean, although I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it.
Sea-going predatory birds, like gull, terns, and penguins.
Long-legged wading birds, like flamingos, shanks, and egrets.
Semi-terrestrial, semi-predatory birds like roadrunners, killdeer, and woodpeckers.
I’d Avoid Them, Just in Case
These birds seem to me like they probably belong in the list and some translators include them explicitly. Your call, of course.
Large flightless birds, like ostriches and emus.
Song birds, like swallows, finches, and cardinals.
Or at least they don’t seem to fit cleanly into any of the forbidden categories and they definitely aren’t listed explicitly. Some people still disagree about them, though.
Peter’s vision in Acts 10 proves beyond any doubt that the Jewish dietary laws were canceled by God and have no relevance whatsoever to Christians.
This is a common objection to Christians continuing to keep God’s Law as given to Moses. It is a serious objection too. If God really commanded Peter to kill and eat a sheet full of unclean animals, that would be a very strong indication that the dietary laws are no longer in effect, so it warrants a thorough examination. It’s a long passage to cut and paste into a blog, so I’ll break it up into chunks and see if I can’t pare it down a little.
Acts 10 begins by telling us about Cornelius, a man very much like Abraham. They were both gentiles who loved God and lived by faith. God respected that faith and sent Cornelius an angel who told him to send for Peter. Note that the Angel did not tell Cornelius to go to Peter but to have Peter brought back to him. This was because Peter had a very important lesson to learn about gentiles and faith. (We are never too big, too smart, too Spirit-filled to learn from someone else, even someone of apparently much lesser rank.)
(9) The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (10) And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance (11) and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. (12) In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. (13) And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (14) But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
There are two very startling things going on here.
God appears to tell Peter to kill unclean animals and eat them.
Peter is shocked that God would tell him to do such a thing.
The first thing was startling to Peter who, as an observant Jew, had never eaten anything “common or unclean.” To him this was nearly as bad as idolatry or murder. He was startled and dismayed that would God command him to transgress the Law, to commit sin.
The second thing, the fact that Peter was shocked–ought to be quite startling to any Christian who believes that Jesus died so that we don’t have to keep the Law anymore, particularly the parts of the Law concerning what we are and are not to eat.
How could Peter not know that Jesus made it OK for him to eat unclean animals? He had walked at the Savior’s side as his friend, daily hearing him teach and preach on how to live a holy life and on the deeper meaning of God’s commandments. Peter had personal, intimate conversations with him about God, faith, salvation, and the Law. He was there on the day that the Pharisees confronted Yeshua about the disciples eating with unwashed hands and heard with his own ears the Messiah proclaim all foods clean. He must have known for many years by this time that no meat could be unclean anymore! At the very least he must have known that this day was coming. Yet he had never in his life eaten anything unclean, and he was shocked at the suggestion.
Why then was he so surprised at it? And why aren’t more Christians surprised at Peter’s surprise?
Is it possible that the subject never came up during Peter’s three year theological tutelage at the feet of Israel’s Messiah? Even after that famous confrontation with the Pharisees in which Yeshua supposedly declared all “foods” clean?
I don’t think so. Yeshua and his disciples ate together almost every day, multiple times each day, and sometimes even with gentiles, while he expounded at length on the meaning of the Law. Most likely, the subject came up more than once, yet it never crossed Peter’s mind that he might be free to eat any animal he wanted.
The truth is that Yeshua never even hinted to Peter that he had come to die so that everyone could eat bacon with their eggs. If God really wanted Peter to eat unclean animals, then this was a new change, and not something that Peter had heard or suspected before.
(15) And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (16) This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (17) Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate (18) and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there.
Three times, God told Peter to kill and eat, but each time he took the sheet with the animals away before Peter could carry out the command. If God sends a vision or a dream, then we know it must have an interpretation, but Peter didn’t immediately know what it might be. In fact, he spent much of the rest of that day puzzling over it and didn’t fully realize God’s message until the three men arrived from Cornelius.
Here is what puzzles me most about this perennial controversy: We don’t have to wonder what Peter’s vision meant. When he arrived at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, he told everyone there in plain language exactly what the vision meant, and Luke recorded his statement for us:
And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
The sheets, the animals, the voice… It was all about people, not food! God wasn’t telling Peter that he had changed the rules about what animals were acceptable for food. God sent the vision to tell Peter that he was bringing people from all nations into the Kingdom, that the Jewish traditions keeping Jews and Gentiles apart were not right. The salvation bought by Yeshua’s blood was for all people, not just the Jews, and Peter had no right to exclude anyone from full fellowship in the Commonwealth of Israel based solely on the circumstances of their birth.
Some will object, saying, “Surely God would never command someone to commit a sin even in a vision, so Peter’s vision in Acts 10 presupposes that unclean animals have also been made clean.”
Why wouldn’t he? This is another parallel with the story of Abraham.
In Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his own son, something that was clearly against God’s Law. Even before Sinai, only certain animals were acceptable for offerings and God has always abhorred human sacrifice. When God told Abraham to kill his son, he never intended anyone to believe that he had therefore abrogated laws against murder and human sacrifice. It was a sin to offer up a human before Mount Moriah, and it remained a sin afterwards. Although God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he prevented him from shedding even a drop of blood.
Now, to make this even clearer for the hard of hearing and the poor of vision:
Commanded to make a human sacrifice
Commanded to eat unclean animals
Prevented from making a human sacrifice
Prevented from eating unclean animals
God commanded both of these men to do something that was against his Law, and in both cases God prevented them from carrying out the command. In neither case did God change his Law. In both cases, God taught us something about his plan of salvation for mankind.
Abraham learned that God would send a substitute sacrifice to do what we could not, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.
Peter learned that God can make children for Abraham from anyone in any nation, that there are no unclean people among those whom God has redeemed.
After telling Cornelius what he had learned from his vision, Peter went on to teach that whole household about Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, about his miracles, his death, and resurrection. All of those present, both Jew and Gentile, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began speaking in tongues and praising God.
All that… and not a single word about lobster ravioli, BLTs, or the flesh of any other unclean animals.
We know that Yeshua said that not even the least significant commandment would be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away and “all is accomplished.” Heaven and earth are still here. All has not been accomplished. Unless Yeshua lied, then the dietary laws cannot have been removed from God’s requirements of his people, and nothing in Acts 10 implies otherwise.
Peter’s vision of unclean animals was never about food. It was always about people. Unless Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac means that murder is no longer a sin, Peter’s vision does not mean that eating “all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds of the air” is no longer a sin.
God’s Law stands unchanged, just as Yeshua said it would in Matthew 5.
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.”
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.
And there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your households, in all that you undertake, in which the LORD your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:7 ESV)
According to Maslow and common sense, a person needs some things more than others. Food and water are at the top of the list, and if you don’t have those, the rest won’t do you much good. A connection to God is more difficult to rank using only our senses and immediate survival, but it is even more important in the long run.
When we don’t eat, we get hungry. When we don’t have the right balance of nutrients in our diet, we experience cravings or illness, and we fulfill those needs by eating more food or more variety of foods. Our feelings of need are usually satisfied in the short term by just about anything we can stuff into our mouths that meets the minimum requirements. If our bodies need calories, then a candy bar will suffice. However, that’s not necessarily the best option available. Certainly, the sugar and fat will supply calories, but usually in the wrong proportions or in undesirable forms. An apple or handful of nuts would be a better choice because it satisfies the immediate craving while providing for longer-term nutrition needs and not doing any damage.
God didn’t say anything to Moses about candy bars because the ancient Israelites didn’t have access to them, but He wasn’t silent about diet. For example, He told us not to eat blood and He even told us why (because the life of an animal is in its blood) even if His explanation is incomprehensible to modern medicine. Contrary to some recent diet fads, He told us that bread is perfectly acceptable so long as it isn’t the only thing we eat. He also told us that some animals (pigs, bats, spiders, etc) shouldn’t be eaten and neither should certain parts of even the good animals. Bat meat things might supply the body’s basic nutritional needs–in fact, it might be excellent sources of some nutrients–but, just as a nutritionist might say that many edible substances aren’t food, so does God. Pigs and bats might be perfectly edible and provide perfectly usable nutrition, but there is something else about them that makes them non-food. God didn’t tell us exactly what makes them off limits; He just said that they are. He designed both them and us, and told us that we shouldn’t eat them whether we understand why or not.
Our need for spiritual connection with God is very similar to our need for food. Voltaire wasn’t so far off when he said that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We have a deep need to worship and serve something greater than ourselves. Every human society throughout history has worshiped and theologized. Not even alcohol has been as widespread as religion. Unfortunately, just like when we eat a Snickers instead of an apple, we frequently follow our spiritual urges without any real understanding of what we need. We know instinctively that prayer, singing, dancing, and offerings are all good and necessary, but like children in a grocery store, we don’t know to take more of the green stuff and less of the pink and gooey. Like candy, there are religious practices that sooth our cravings, but don’t provide good spiritual nutrition. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising to find McDonalds “restaurants” in churches. There is a right way and a wrong way to relate to God, to worship and serve Him, and just as with food, He gave us some substantial direction in the Scriptures.
God linked food and religion, and Moses made that link clear. In Deuteronomy 11 & 12, Moses said, “You will not worship like the pagans do. You will destroy the places the pagans used for their worship, and you will wipe out the names of their gods. You will not offer sacrifices just anywhere you want, but only in that place that God chooses for His name. You will not eat blood, and you will only eat those animals that God has declared food. And, don’t forget, you will worship God in His way, not in your way, nor in the ways of the pagans.” God left a lot to our tastes and aesthetics, but He gave us some important ingredients to a healthy spiritual life that we ignore to our own detriment.
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James and the elders in Jerusalem told the new gentile converts not to eat meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15 & 21). Paul told them there is nothing wrong with eating so long as you don’t do it in front of anyone who believes it’s wrong (1 Corinthians 8 & 10). And then Yeshua castigated two churches in the Revelation for teaching people to eat food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2). Or at least that’s what many of us have been taught. More likely, you haven’t been taught anything about it at all except that all rules about what you can and cannot eat have been thrown out.
Actually, James and Yeshua were talking about something that is–and remains–very clearly wrong while Paul was talking about a fine point of law about which intelligent and reasonable people could easily disagree.
Temple sacrifices, both biblical and pagan, involve killing an animal, performing some ritual with its blood or carcass and then eating some or all of the animal. A sacrifice was often occasion for a community feast. The Greeks had a word for the sacrificial animal and the ensuing roast: eidolothuton. That’s the word that Yeshua and the Apostles used when they talked about meat sacrificed to idols. As far as the ritual goes, the religion of the Jews and that of the Greeks would have looked very similar to people in the first century. However, there is one major difference: sacrifices made to Yahweh in the Temple in Jerusalem actually accomplished something real, while sacrifices made in any of the thousands of pagan shrines did absolutely nothing but keep people distracted from the truth and enslaved to sin. God absolutely forbade his people from participating in the eidolothuton. He called it adultery. James and Yeshua reaffirmed that prohibition.
Then Paul came along and started telling people that it was alright to eat the eidolothuton so long as they understood that it was just meat with no supernatural significance. Some will tell you that this is because Yeshua did away with all the rules about what you can eat and what you can’t. Since Yeshua said otherwise many years after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that doesn’t really make sense. So what did Paul really mean?
Here’s what Paul was actually trying to tell the Corinthians:
There is no spiritual significance to meat sacrificed to idols beyond that attributed to it in the minds of those who participate in the sacrifice. It has no actual power in itself and can do you no spiritual harm or good through eating it as mere food and not as a religious observance. If you eat a steak that once happened to belong to a bull sacrificed to Z–s, what of it? If you aren’t eating it as a sacrificial animal, but merely as a steak, then there’s no problem. You could even eat it in the god’s temple. So long as you have no thoughts to honor the false god (or the true God for that matter) through the eating of sacrificial meat, then you aren’t actually participating in the eidolothuton, and you’ve committed no sin.
If you buy a rack of lamb in the market, don’t worry about whether or not it was sacrificed to an idol. If you don’t know one way or another then it can’t possibly do you any harm.
However, many people who have lived their whole lives in pagan idolatry could never eat such a meal without thinking that they were somehow honoring the idol. If they were to see you in the temple of Z–s, eating the eidolothuton, might they think that you too believe there is spiritual power of some kind in the actual flesh of the sacrificed animal? If they are led astray, thinking it now acceptable to participate in an idolatrous ritual as a religious observance, then you have done him a severe disservice. I would rather never eat meat again than cause someone who misunderstood my actions to revert to idolatry.
Paul was not making a statement about clean vs unclean meat and was certainly not dismissing any part of God’s Law. He kept Torah all his life, even to the point of taking a Nazirite vow and bringing sacrifices to the Temple after he had been preaching to the gentiles for many years. He wrote to the Corinthians was to clarify the law, not to annul it.