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What Is Circumcision of the Heart?

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. Deuteronomy 10:16

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
Deuteronomy 10:16

Circumcise yourselves to YHWH; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.
Jeremiah 4:4

But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Romans 2:29

(Please read the whole chapter for each of those verses to understand the full context. Click on each reference to access the chapters at Bible Gateway.)

But Paul Said…

Paul is often misunderstood to be against physical circumcision in all cases, but the full context of his letters show that can’t be the case. Rather, he is against circumcision in a misguided conversion to Judaism or the performance of any other rite or commandment as a condition for the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation.

Salvation is solely by the grace of God extended to those who put their faith in him. Circumcision is something that a believing man can do later if he is led to it by the Holy Spirit or if there is some practical reason, so long as he doesn’t believe it will make him more saved. There is no general command in Scripture for a grown man to be circumcised unless he is wants to eat the Passover, which is impossible to do outside of Jerusalem. Anyone external pressure for a grown man to be circumcised comes solely from other men, not from God.

If you’re not a priest going to serve in the Temple (you’re not), if you’re not going to eat a Passover lamb this year (extremely unlikely), and if you’re not an 8-day old baby boy (wow! reading already!?) then there is no good reason to get circumcised.

Now, having dispensed of that inevitable barrier to communication, let me get the actual point of this article…

What Does It Mean to Circumcise One’s Heart?

In Deuteronomy 10, Moses told the Israelites that, although God owns all of heaven and earth, he chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all their descendants as special objects of his love and attention. Because God chose Israel above all other peoples, he wanted them to circumcise the foreskin of their hearts “and stop being stiff-necked”.

He went on to say that God is mighty and awesome, above all other gods, and above all the petty bribery that the gods of the nations demanded from them. Yet, despite his awesome power and the universal scope of his awareness, he gives special attention to orphans, widows, and landless above the special attention he already gives to Israel.

Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19

The essence of heart circumcision seems to be in the humility to accept the attentions of the Almighty and to serve those who have the least power of all.

Because of Adam’s sin, our world can be hard and compassionless. It’s tempting to see all impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged people as deserving their state–an attitude encouraged by some of the world’s largest religions–and therefore also deserving lesser treatment by society and even by law.

While it’s true that poverty is perpetuated by bad choices, Scripture also tells us that we are all sinners according to God’s standards and equally deserving of death. A circumcised heart perceives its own unworthiness, but gratefully accepts and returns God’s love in spite of that. It not only loves God, who is infinitely more deserving, but also loves the poor, homeless, and even the criminal.

God wants us, who have received undeserved mercy, to extend undeserved mercy in turn, a mercy which enables the recipient to stand back up and try again and again to make better choices.

Be Holy, Even As I Am Holy

God wants us to be holy (set apart for sacred purpose) just as he is holy. In Leviticus chapters 11, 19, and 20, this means keeping God’s commandments, especially in regards to avoiding the pagan practices of idolatry, necromancy, disrespecting parents, sexual immorality, and eating animals whose meat God finds detestable.

Peter reiterated this expectation of holiness through obedience:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
1 Peter 1:14-16

It’s clearly a good thing to keep God’s commandments, and while outward obedience will bring circumcision of the flesh (at least for boys born into the faith), it cannot, by itself, bring circumcision of the heart.

The truth is exactly the opposite. A hard heart is like a hardened clay soil that breaks ploughs and starves seedlings. The Word sprouts quickly but withers away because it can’t put down roots. It is a haven for brambles and wild grass, but hostile to anything that can produce good fruit. Only a circumcised heart can accept the seed of God’s instructions and allow it to produce a harvest worthy of the land owner.

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision [of the flesh] be regarded as circumcision [of the heart]? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
Romans 2:26-27

The Hearts of Your Children

There is another important aspect of heart circumcision that I want to bring to your attention.

The manner of circumcision of the flesh was not arbitrary. God chose the skin that would be cut removed in part because it symbolizes one of the core promises of his covenant with Abraham:

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you….This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
Genesis 17:7, 10-11

Abraham’s physical descendants all passed through the cut of his physical circumcision. All of his promised descendants inherit the covenant by which they were promised, but they are commanded to circumcise their sons in turn.

If you are a son of Abraham, then your sons must be circumcised on the eighth day. This doesn’t give them eternal salvation or forgive their sins, but it does make God’s promises to Abraham theirs to reject.

Circumcision of the heart follows the same pattern as circumcision of the flesh.

And YHWH your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Deuteronomy 30:6

Just as Moses told us to keep God’s commandments as we work to circumcise our hearts, he also told us to teach God’s commandments to our children.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Deuteronomy 6:6-7

Circumcision of the heart is a process that each person must take on for himself, but parents have a responsibility to set their children on the right path, to teach them to fear and love YHWH, to cherish his commandments, and to be kind to all people. In doing so, we enable them to inherit the New Covenant established in the blood of Yeshua.

How Does a Heart Become Circumcised?

Physical circumcision is relatively quick and painless. We circumcise our sons when they are eight days old, before they are old enough to remember the pain. Circumcision of the heart is a much longer and more painful process. It begins and ends with obedience, not for the sake of being righteous or special or staying out of trouble, but for the sake of the Law-Giver.

And now, Israel, what does YHWH your God require of you, but to fear YHWH your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and with all your soul,
Deuteronomy 10:12

And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it.
2 John 1:6

God wants our fearful devotion and our love. He wants to be the center of our thoughts, motives, and our entire lives. Such devotion requires the breaking of our pride, our independence, and even our very identity.

If a commandment is a burden, then it either hasn’t yet done its work on your heart, or you are keeping it for the wrong reason. A resentful or prideful obedience is not obedience at all. Refocus on the loving kindness of the Father who gave us the Law through Moses, of the Son who gave us his very life to enable our obedience without fear of condemnation, and of the Spirit who teaches us how to live, comforts us when we fail or are persecuted for our obedience, and guides us onto better paths.

As we learn to keep God’s commandments out of love for him, his Spirit works through our desire to obey to draw us closer to him. Through the keeping of commandments with a right heart, we are disciplined and pruned. The heart will become more right, and we will learn more perfect obedience, understanding that the heart of every commandment is love.

The secret to a circumcised heart, ready to receive God’s instructions, is in recognizing that we are no more deserving of his attention than anyone else, that nothing we could ever do could earn his affections, and yet God still loves us more than all the rest of creation. When we love him enough in return to submit to his commandments and when we see a reflection of his perfection and our own failures in the least of all people, we will be on the path.


For more information see this video from 119 Ministries…

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…

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.

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. 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).

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!

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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 Canaan to take possession of their inheritance and begin fulfilling their true calling in God’s plan.

The roles of TorahThe 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.”

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.


Whose Law Is It and Why Should You Care?

Someone once wrote, “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they have an obligation to abide by Jewish Law.”

I completely agree.

If that surprises you, then you might be operating under the same lexical error as the original writer. The problem is a confusion of terms. Most Christians will read this phrase and actually understand it to mean “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they cannot be saved unless they obey the Law given to Israel at Sinai,” and that’s probably what the writer meant too, but it’s not what the words, as written, mean at all.

Take the word “obligation” for instance.

If I am obligated to abide by posted speed limits everywhere in the United States, does that mean I will lose my citizenship if I exceed the limit at any time or even if I ignore them altogether? Of course, not. That’s absurd. It only means that I’ve broken the law and thereby placed myself under the jurisdiction of the local justice system, often colloquially known as “The Law”.

At no time before, during, or after my speeding episode was my citizenship in jeopardy. Likewise, no one is under any obligation to keep Torah in order to earn salvation, nor is anyone who is already “saved” or grafted into the nation of Israel obligated to keep Torah in order to keep that status. Which is not the same thing as saying that he is not obligated to keep Torah.

Anyone who claims to be grafted into the tree of Israel is obligated to keep Torah because God commanded Israel to keep it forever. Yeshua (Jesus) said further that anyone who refuses to keep it and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Notice that the offender is still “in the Kingdom,” but has been demoted by his disregard of God’s commands.

Be careful also of the term “Jewish Law.” It’s confusing because it’s often used to describe contradictory ideas. For example, many people are under the mistaken impression that Torah requires ritual handwashing before eating bread. Matthew 15 describes an incident in which a group of Jewish religious teachers asked Yeshua why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating as required by the “tradition of the elders.” Yeshua responded with a question of his own: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” There is no commandment in Torah to wash one’s hands before eating. This was a “tradition of the elders” only. It was Jewish Law, but not God’s Law, and God isn’t concerned with Jewish Law.

“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9 & Isaiah 29:13)

This was the same battle that Paul fought all through his ministry. He was constantly correcting people who were conflating Jewish Law with God’s Law. People who say believers in Yeshua shouldn’t keep “Jewish Law” are making the exact same mistake the Pharisees did: they replace God’s commands with man’s. Either they reject God’s Law and keep a new “Christian” set of laws against drinking, swearing, and smoking, or they reject God’s Law because they don’t want to make the mistake of keeping “Jewish” law, not understanding that they are not the same.

Yeshua and Torah are inseparable

Is God’s Law Jewish? Only if you use the term “Jewish” to refer to all things related to Hebrews and Israel. It’s not technically accurate, since the term originally only applied to the Kingdom of Judah and not to the Kingdom of Israel and the tribes that were scattered by the Assyrians, but human language is rarely technically accurate. Referring to all Israelites as Jewish has a long history–even Paul did it at times–so I won’t quibble with that too much. Just be aware of the difference and be aware that the writings of the Jewish sages, the Talmuds, and the Jewish traditions are NOT the same as the written Torah. They are commentary, and often they are even very good commentary, but they cannot change, add to, or remove anything from God’s Law.

If you are grafted into Israel as Paul described in Romans, then the Law that God commanded the Israelites to keep applies to you. If you are not, then nothing that Yeshua said applies to you either, since he said that he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Yeshua and Torah are a package deal. Either you’re in or you’re out. Either Yeshua and Torah both apply to you or neither do.

Nobody’s Perfect, So Don’t Even Try

Does James 2:10 mean that Christians shouldn't try to keep God's law? In Paul's words, Heaven forbid!

Someone once tried to tell me…

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

Good luck trying to become righteous before God through the law…I wish you the best.

This person was equating “righteous” with “saved”, which isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just irrelevant. Whether or not a Christian is obligated to keep God’s Law has nothing at all to do with whether or not it makes a person sufficiently righteous to merit salvation. Abstaining from murder doesn’t make one righteous in this sense either, but no one believes Christians are therefore free to commit murder.

This person is essentially saying, “You can’t keep the Law perfectly, so don’t even try,” which is precisely the opposite of what James was trying to say. Just three verses earlier, he quoted Torah (the Law) from Leviticus 19:18, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scriptures, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” Does it really make sense to interpret James as saying “If you’re trying to keep the Law, you’re doing a good thing, but since you can’t keep all of it, don’t try to keep any of it”? How absurd!

No, James was saying, “It’s great if you love your neighbor, but don’t forget about all the rest of it.”

Nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to fall short of God’s standards (aka Torah). That’s why Yeshua’s sacrifice was necessary. But don’t take inevitable failure as permission to fail. It’s not.

Edible, but Not Food

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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