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Acts 15, revisited

Are Christians obligated to keep the Law of Moses?

People frequently point to Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem as an argument against Christians keeping Torah. “Peter, James, and the other Apostles said that gentile converts only need to keep these four rules, so we don’t need to keep the Law of Moses.” The obvious counter is that, if eating food that has been sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality, eating animals that have been strangled, and consuming blood (Acts 15:20) is the full moral standard for Christians, then we are free to dishonor our parents, thumb our nose at traffic signs, lie, cheat, steal, and curse God. Yet nobody believes that!

Clearly the ruling of the Jerusalem Council is just a baseline for new converts in the context of the pagan Roman Empire, who already had a basic understanding of right and wrong.

Here’s another statement extracted from a conversation from a long time ago, in an Internet forum far, far away:

Jesus’ entire ministry on earth was centered around clarifying the law, and in many places he criticizes those who live by the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. an example is the “good samaritan parable”. The laws were given to the Jews in order to keep them ceremoniously clean and set aside for God. So when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, his blood sacrifice has fulfilled the spirit of the law by making us clean before God and setting us aside for him. I believe as much is stated in John 1:1-14.

I do not believe that Acts 15 is suggesting that Christians can lie, steal, etc. etc., because such things were not included in the letter. Rather I believe that as Jesus said, the sum of the laws and the prophets, the spirit of them, is to love the Lord you God will all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.

-Mr. B.A.D.

I don’t think that Mr. B.A.D. is very far from the truth here. Yeshua did spend much of his time correcting misunderstandings of the Law. God did give the Torah to Israel to set them apart from other peoples. Yeshua’s life and sacrifice did fulfill the spirit of the Law. The sum of the Law and the Prophets is to love God and neighbor.

But this is an incomplete understanding. Let’s look at each of these points in more detail.

Yeshua criticized those who live by the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law.

Mr. B.A.D. is talking about the Pharisees in particular, I think. Here are some of the specific complaints Yeshua had against them:

  1. They replaced the commandments of God with the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:9)
  2. They held others to a higher standard than that to which they held themselves. (Matthew 23:4)
  3. Their obedience was done mostly for show and not out of love for anyone but themselves. (Matthew 23:5-7)
  4. Their false teachings made it more difficult for anyone else to know the truth. (Matthew 23:13)
  5. They abused the poor and weak. (Matthew 23:14)
  6. They didn’t make disciples for God, but disciples for themselves. (Matthew 23:15)
  7. They had their priorities all wrong. (Matthew 23:16-22)
  8. They were scrupulous on the minutiae of the Law while they ignored the most important commandments. (Matthew 23:23-24)
  9. Their public behavior was at complete odds with their private behavior and with their hearts. (Matthew 23:25-31)

It seems to me that all of this can be summed up in a single word: hypocrisy. Their problem wasn’t that they were obsessed with the letter of the Law. Their problem was an obsessions with appearing to keep the Law. They were so concerned with this appearance that the Law itself wasn’t enough for them. “Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t showy enough for the Pharisaical mind. They had to make up more and more rules to follow so that everyone could see how very righteous they were, but in adding to God’s Law they were breaking the very thing they pretended to keep. They were hypocrites from their white-washed facades to their rotted cores.

I think Mr B.A.D.’s main point here is entirely correct. A preoccupation with the letter of the Law to the detriment of the spirit of the Law will destroy you, because it will tend to lead you to less obedience in the end, rather than more. It is easy to get lost in the details and forget what is most important. The individual commandments are not the goal, but only individual stones in the road. The goal is Yeshua, and we would all do well to keep our focus on him rather than on precisely measuring our tithes of mint and cumin.

The laws were given to the Jews in order to keep them ceremonially clean, and set aside for God.

The Law was given for many reasons, one of which was to keep the Israelites separate from the pagan nations around them, but this separateness is really more of an effect of the Law than an intent. God gave Israel the Law to teach them to behave better than the Canaanites, not just differently. The specific commandments weren’t arbitrary. God didn’t randomly pick which animals would be clean and unclean, or which fabrics they could and couldn’t mix.

Israel is a holy nation because God chose them from among all other nations to be his special possession. Holiness means “set apart for divine purpose”. Since he made them holy by election, he also wanted them to be holy by behavior. The goal of behaving differently isn’t just to stand out. The Pharisees were great at standing out from the crowd, but terrible at obeying God’s Law. Rather, the goal of God’s rules about behaving differently than the pagans, was to make Israel more beautiful and pleasing to him.

Why should Israel not eat pigs? Because eating pigs is detestable to God. Why should Israel not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together? Because, whether we understand why or not, God hates it.

But that’s not the only reason God gave Israel the Law.

Paul wrote that the Law was also given to define sin for the whole world (Romans 3:19-20).

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Romans 3:19-20

The whole world–not only the Jews–is accountable to God for their disobedience to the Law. As John wrote, sin is lawlessness, and he didn’t mean the laws of Rome or Babylon. He meant God’s Law. Sin is, by definition, breaking God’s Law. Now that we are saved from condemnation and our sins have been forgiven, are we supposed to forget what sin is and behave in whatever manner we feel is right? Of course not! God’s forgiveness of past sins is not a license to commit future sins.

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Romans 3:31

Now that we have been separated from the world, elevated to the status of a holy people along with the native-born Israelite, we demonstrate our gratefulness and maintain that separation by behaving differently than we behaved when we were still in sin. “Be holy, even as I am holy” in 1 Peter 1:16 is a quote from multiple passages in Leviticus. We have been made holy by divine action, and so God requires us to live accordingly by following the rules he gave for that purpose.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”
2 Corinthians 6:14-18

So when Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, his blood sacrifice has fulfilled the spirit of the law by making us clean before God and setting us aside for him.

When Yeshua died on the cross he fulfilled the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself more certainly than most of us ever will, but that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of continuing to love our neighbors as ourselves. He took our sin upon him and shed his own blood to fulfill the Law’s requirement for the death of murderers, Sabbath breakers, and the sexually immoral. Yeshua’s blood atones for us and removes us from under the condemnation of the Law, but that is still not a license to ignore God’s standards of behavior. He didn’t die so that we can eat bacon cheeseburgers and sleep with whomever we choose. He died so that we can have eternal life despite our failings.

Acts 15 is not suggesting that Christians can lie, steal, etc etc because such things were not included in the letter.

I agree, and this is something that many people overlook when they read that passage. For the sake of theological argument they interpret James’ ruling as the definitive list of moral behavior for Christians, but then say that Christians also have to keep a long list of other rules. This demonstrates that they don’t even believe their own arguments. Very few people actually think the apostles were really giving new converts permission to steal so long as they didn’t drink blood. The only logical conclusion is that the apostles were giving a starting point and expected the converts to continue learning and improving their behavior from there. What curriculum did they expect these gentiles to use for furthering their education in morality and religion? Torah.

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

The controversy in Acts 15 was never about whether the Law applied to gentile believers in Yeshua–Romans 3:19 makes it clear that the Law applies to all people, believers or not–but about whether obedience to the Law was necessary for salvation. We are no longer “under the Law” because we have been set free from its power to condemn, but we are still accountable to God for keeping his commandments and maintaining his standard of acceptable behavior.

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.”
Acts 15:1

Keeping the Law of Moses cannot remove the guilt of prior sins nor earn you eternal salvation, but if viewed properly, it can improve your life, your community, and your relationship with God. “Be holy, because I am holy,” God said, not because he wants us to be weird, but because he loves some behaviors and hates others. If we are the Bride of Christ, we should behave like it. What man wants his bride to wear filthy rags and smell like an outhouse?

How Do the Ten Commandments Relate to the Christian?

Should Christians keep the Ten Commandments?

A long-time Internet acquaintance asked a couple of questions in an open forum many years ago, and I reproduce her questions and my responses here…

1) How should Christians regard the ten commandments? (Not rhetorical; I really want to know.)

Paul told the Roman Christians that the Law defines sin. Without the written commandments, our ability to discern what is and is not sin is seriously hobbled. He specifically used one of the ten commandments to illustrate his point.

Romans 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

As Paul pointed out, it is impossible to sin by keeping the Law, aka Torah. (Of course, it is possible to sin by keeping one part of the Torah, while ignoring another part as the Pharisees did.) This is because sin is, by definition, the breaking of the Law, not the keeping of it (1 John 3:4).

You can think of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 as a summary of all of the rest of the Law (sometimes numbered at 613, by I think that count is dubious), and they are in turn are summarized by the Two Commandments that Yeshua quoted in Matthew 22 and Mark 12:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 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 [Deuteronomy 6:4-5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself [Leviticus 19:18]. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:35-40

Allow me to illustrate with a short table.

The TwoLove GodLove Neighbor
An example from the TenHave no other godsDo not covet
An example from the 613Do not worship YHWH in the same way the pagans worship their gods.Do not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain

Because we love God, we will have no other gods. If we have no other gods, we will worship him in the ways he wants to be worshiped and not the way those other gods want. Because we love our neighbor, we will not covet those things that belong to him. If we do not covet our neighbor’s possessions, we will not steal his crops.

Every Christian knows –or ought to know–that sin is a bad thing. If that’s a point of contention, then we have much deeper problems than whether or not the Law defines sin. And if the Law defines sin as Paul and John both said, then it logically follows that we ought to be studying and keeping the Law. Not because a single mistake will send us to hell, but because we owe it to God. How can anyone say he loves God and then ignore his commandments? Or do they really believe that Paul was lying when he said that all of the commandments are summed up in love?

2) As a relatively new convert, one thing that’s also confused me is how to answer people who ask why Christians include the Old Testament in the Christian Bible. I’ve encountered Jews who didn’t know that we include the Torah in the Christian Bible and study it in church. They were curious about this practice, but I wasn’t sure I had the correct explanation for them. Is it to establish the context for the New Testament?

One of the earliest major heresies that the Christian church had to deal with is called Marcionism. In some ways it was the opposite of the Judaizers that Paul dealt with through much of his ministry. Where the Judaizers added laws and traditions on top of God’s Law, the Marcionites threw out the entire Old Testament and much of the New as well. They taught that the God of the Hebrews was a malevolent deity who actually hated the Jews and gave them the Torah as a punishment. Jesus was a new God who overthrew YHWH and all of his oppressive laws. They kept Paul’s writings because it was easy to twist his words around to justify their lawlessness. These were the people that Peter warned so strongly against when he wrote,

2 Peter 3:16 …There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

This Marcionism is almost identical with the feel-good, no-rules Christianity of today. Marcion is alive and well in your home town and every place where Christians reject God’s word as outdated and superseded by a new gospel of “love” unfounded on any real principles or standards, but on feelings and that most deceitful of all voices: the heart.

What we call the Old Testament was the only set of scriptures the first century church had for many years. The apostles referred to them constantly throughout their letters. Yeshua preached from the Torah and the Prophets. Indeed much of the New Testament is completely incomprehensible without a solid foundation in the Old Testament.

The thing that baffles me is that most Christian churches really do understand this and yet they still ignore the Old Testament, especially the Torah, and so they keep falling for the same old lies. It’s truly a spiritual psychosis.

Should Christians keep the Ten Commandments? If they claim to follow the two greatest commandments, they absolutely should.

There’s No Rest without Submission

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Matthew 11:29-30

Years ago, when Robert was in college, one of his more socially awkward classmates, Bennie, showed up at his dorm room–this was before cell phones were ubiquitous–eager to make a new friend and maybe hang out for awhile. Unfortunately, Robert already had all the friends he wanted and told Bennie to get lost; he wasn’t wanted there. He still remembers the look on Bennie’s face.

Nicole had three children, but she was never a mother to them. She had a nanny who took care of their daily needs, took them to school, and read stories to them at bedtime. When her daughter had an abortion at sixteen, Nicole didn’t find out until six months later. When her son was arrested for drug possession, her husband bailed him out and she pretended nothing happened. Today, her daughter hasn’t spoken to her in over a decade, and she has three grandchildren she’s never met.

We all have regrets. We all harbor guilt. Some of us more than others, deservedly or not.

Matthew 11:28-30 contains a chiasm on finding rest in Yeshua (aka Jesus).

  • A – V28 – Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden
    • B – I will give you rest
      • C – V29 – Take my yoke upon you
        • D – Learn from me
      • C – I am gentle and lowly in heart
    • B – You will find rest for your souls
  • A – V30 – My yoke is easy and my burden is light

I have heard people say that “Jesus is my Sabbath”, and that’s not a bad sentiment as long as it’s only meant metaphorically. Some people want to take an idea like that too literally, as if believing in Yeshua alleviates all other physical and spiritual needs. The Sabbath is a day of the week, and Yeshua isn’t a day of the week. He does give us rest, but not the kind of rest that eliminates the need for a day off from work.

The rest that Yeshua gives is spiritual and emotional in nature. He alleviates our fears, heals our wounds, and enables us to develop a full relationship with our Heavenly Father.

The labors and burdens that Yeshua spoke of in Matthew 11:28 are not physical. He wasn’t speaking only to manual laborers, but also to tax collectors, entertainers, and CEOs. Suffering is relative. From the outside, it might appear that a brick layer carries a heavier burden than a house wife, but inner burdens can’t be measured by weight or volume. A harsh word at the wrong moment can often cause a deeper, more lasting wound than a knife that slips and cuts the flesh. The worries of a parent can be more damaging in the long run to a person’s health than the repetitive stress of hammering nails. These are the burdens that Yeshua primarily meant and that he wants to help us with.

Guilt, regret, worry… they weigh heavily on everyone, but God can give us relief if we will put our faith in Yeshua. Having faith in him means trusting his promises and teaching, but most of all it means being faithful to him, submitting ourselves to his sovereignty over our lives.

“Take my yoke upon you”, he said. He wants to take the yoke of sin and self that has enslaved us, but it’s impossible to live without a master. It’s part of the nature of being human. The old yoke cannot come off our shoulders unless it is immediately replaced with Yeshua’s. We have to be willing to take his yoke in its place or he cannot take ours.

This passage says, “If you are burdened, come to Yeshua, who will give you rest through a lighter burden.” But at the very center of the chiasm, Yeshua says “Learn from me.” In other words, become his disciple and learn by studying and following his example.

Once you have decided to put our faith in Yeshua, to believe what he told us, he will accept you into his house. Once you are in his house, learn from his words and deeds, and become an imitator of Yeshua, as Paul instructed the believers at Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:1.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. -The Apostle Paul

There is no expiration on the teachings of our Master. In Matthew 24:35, he said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Everything he taught to the Twelve Disciples and the people of first century Judea is applicable to us now:

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
  • Don’t worry about the future and all that the world might do to you.
  • Trials and persecution are inevitable, but so is salvation for those who trust in him.
  • Keep the instructions of God as given through Moses and the Prophets.

Do you want rest for your soul? Then put your faith in Yeshua, take the yoke of his discipleship on your shoulders, and learn to live and love as he did. Your difficulties and labors won’t disappear, but as you learn more of his character and incorporate it into your own life, those troubles will grow lighter and lighter over time.


A brief video teaching on the same passage…