Remains of the synagogue at Capernaum. Were Gentile Christians expected to regularly attend synagogues to learn how to follow the Law of Moses?
Ever since the gospel message spread to the Gentiles in the first century AD, believers have struggled to understand the relationship between Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ, and the Jewish people. The New Testament epistles often reflect the ongoing confusion among the early Christians trying to make sense of this new development.
For centuries, the people of God were Jews (with some exceptions of Gentiles who came to believe in the God of Israel), but the book of Acts documents how the good news spread from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The early church was comprised of Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, but when the gospel went to the Gentiles, a huge number of them converted to the Christian faith, creating a new dynamic that raised numerous questions. Were Gentiles required to submit to the law that God gave Moses at Mt. Sinai? Did Gentiles become Jews? Had God’s plan for the Jews failed? These questions and many more lie in the background of several New Testament letters, and Paul specifically addresses them, particularly in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians.
In the centuries that followed the close of the New Testament, many Christians started to believe that the church was the true Israel and that the blessings God had promised to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament had now been transferred to the church. Known as supercessionism or replacement theology, this idea is one of the major differences between covenant theology and dispensational theology. Addressing the many issues involved in this particular debate is beyond the main point of this post, although some will be touched upon because I want to examine another view that focuses on the relationship between Israel and the church. For a good book that presents what I believe to be a proper view on the subject, please see Future Israel by Barry Horner.
In recent decades, the Hebrew Roots movement (HRM) has gained a significant following, introducing even more confusion on the relationship between Israel and the church. This movement teaches that when a Gentile trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation, then that person instantly becomes a Hebrew and is responsible for keeping significant parts of the Law of Moses, most notably the Sabbath, the Levitical feasts, and the dietary laws. I have written a lengthy article on this group elsewhere, so this post will briefly highlight some of the points made there and then address some of the many responses to that article that I have read. But before we do that, we need to define some terms, because in my numerous interactions with members of this movement, some have redefined biblical terms to get around the clear meaning of a given passage.
The Bible refers to the law code the Lord gave to Moses and the Israelites as the Law of Moses.
I have already mentioned some of the terms that need defining. First, the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law refers to the set of laws that God gave to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Much of this law code was repeated in Deuteronomy just before Moses died and the people entered the land promised to them. Certain folks in the HRM have criticized me for using these terms, arguing that it is God’s Law and it didn’t come from Moses. I have never denied that God is the one who gave these laws to Moses, and I even stated this plainly in my original article. However, the Bible uses the phrase “Law of Moses” 22 times in the NKJV (15 times in the OT and 7 in the NT), including one time in Acts 15:5, which was the primary chapter focused on in my article. So it is perfectly biblical to use this terminology, and “Mosaic Law” is just a different way to state the same concept.
We also need to define what the Bible means when speaking of the Jews. Some HRM proponents have criticized me for using this term when referring to Israelites. They claim that the term in Scripture only refers to people from the tribe of Judah. Although this is how the term was originally used around the start of the Babylonian exile, by the time of the New Testament, and perhaps as early as the return from exile, the term was used to refer to all Israelites. That is, all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) are considered Jews in the New Testament, and this is how I have used the term in these discussions. Two points will make this clear.
First, Paul said that he was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 1:16). In this passage, and many others, Paul used the term Greek to refer to the Gentiles, all of the people who are not Jews. Paul was not claiming that the gospel was for the tribe of Judah first and then for the Gentiles. If that were the case, then we must assume that the gospel was not even intended for the other 11 tribes of Israel.
Second, Paul specifically identified Israelites from tribes other than Judah as Jews. He identified himself as a Jew: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia…” (Acts 22:3), and yet he was of the tribe of Benjamin: “I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). Consider the following words Paul sent to the Roman church:
What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1–2)
Paul stated that the Jews were given the privilege of writing Scripture. In other words, the Old Testament was written by Jews. Well, Moses was from the tribe of Levi, as was Ezra, Joshua was from Benjamin, and David and Solomon were from Judah. According to Paul, they were all Jews. Mordecai was from Benjamin, and he is called a Jew in Esther 10:3. So it simply is not true that the term Jew only refers to individuals from the tribe of Judah.
Of particular interest to our study here is that I am not aware of a single instance in the entire Bible in which a non-descendant of Jacob is ever called a Jew. Gentiles who converted to the Jewish faith were not identified as Jews in the Bible—they were called proselytes (Acts 2:5, 6:5). In Antioch, Paul preached in the synagogue and then we are told that after the congregation had broken up, “many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 13:43).
Speaking of the Gentiles, one respondent thought it was quite funny when I stated that I am not a Jew. He explained that every believer in Jesus Christ is a Jew and then stated that the term Gentile means that someone is without a covenant with God. This idea is illegitimately drawn from Ephesians 2:11–13 where Paul wrote about Gentiles who were “without Christ, being aliens to the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” While it is true that the Gentiles prior to Christ were outside of the covenants of promise, it is not true that this is what Gentile means. A Gentile is simply someone who is not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The New Testament regularly speaks of “Gentiles who believe” (Acts 21:25) and “the brethren who are of the Gentiles” (Acts 15:23) without calling them Jews. Paul called himself “a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Timothy 2:7). If Gentiles became Jews upon belief, then why would Paul speak of being a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth? The truth is that Gentiles do not become Jews when they believe. And according to Scripture, Gentiles can be “without Christ” or those “who believe.” The term itself simply does not reveal someone’s status with God.
After wrestling the Lord throughout the night, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel.
We must also define what the Bible means by Israel. I think nearly everyone agrees that in the Old Testament, it refers to the people and nation that came from the twelve sons of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel by God. It is in the New Testament where many have assumed that a different definition is being used in some cases. In fact, some have claimed that Israel and the church are used interchangeably, but this is not true. The term Israel appears 75 times in the New Testament of the NKJV (70 in ESV and 73 in NASB). In every single instance, it refers to the nation of Israel or to believing individuals within Israel. There are only a couple of verses that some people use in their attempt to make it refer to the church, such as Galatians 6:16 and the first use in Romans 9:6. However, in both of those cases, it makes much more sense of the context if those instances refer to the believing remnant within the nation. In his comprehensive book on the various Christian views of Israel, Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum surveys every verse with the word Israel to show that it is not used to speak of the church, but is always used in reference to the nation or the believing remnant within that nation (see Israelology, p. 684ff.).
Some Christians bring up Galatians 3:28 as a way of confusing the Jew/Gentile issues that have existed since the first century AD. It states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But is this verse really stating that God no longer sees a distinction between Jew and Gentile (or Greek)? Not at all! Let’s look at the remainder of the verse. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). If this verse proves that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, then it would also prove that there is no distinction between slaves or freemen and that God also does not make a distinction between male and female. Of course, this idea about male and female would directly contradict what Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus years later, as well as what Peter wrote to his readers. The passage is about the unity we have in Christ, even though there are distinctions. If, as some believe, Paul taught that there was no difference between Jew and Greek in Galatians, quite possibly his earliest letter, then why would he still be teaching about distinctions between Jew and Gentile years later while writing Romans? (See Romans 1:16 and 3:1–2)
With this background, we can now proceed to address some of the claims of the Hebrew Roots movement. I need to stress several points. First, there are many different views within the HRM, so what may be true of some adherents may not be true of others. So please do not assume that every statement below represents every individual within the HRM. Second, I hold no ill will toward people within this movement. My writings on the topic are not meant as personal attacks but as sincere efforts to correct what I believe are teachings that do not accurately reflect Scripture. Third, HRM followers should not be confused with Messianic Jews. While there are some similarities, Messianic Jews are people who are ethnically Jewish and have come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah. They observe certain Old Testament practices but generally recognize that they are free to not observe them if they so choose. The HRM is practically the opposite in that they are generally Gentiles who believe that by trusting in Christ, they have now become part of Israel and they are obligated to keep the Law of Moses. Fourth, I am not accusing HRM followers of having sinister motives. I believe the majority of them are sincerely seeking to honor God and have come to believe that the way to do that is through keeping the Law of Moses. Fifth, this critique is not meant to discourage anyone from seeking to learn more about the Hebrew culture and language in an effort to better understand Scripture. I encourage everyone to do this.
Some of the responses to my initial article were emotional outbursts from those who obviously disagreed with me. Someone said they wanted to punch me in the face. Another said that I would be least in the kingdom. Someone else said that I was absolutely clueless while another person told me to “Go home and READ YOUR BIBLE!!” Still, despite the claims that I was clueless or worse, several people who had left the HRM reached out and told me that my article was very accurate and others complimented how careful and gracious it was. Many still in the HRM attempted to defend the views that I critiqued. Why would they do this if I did not accurately represent their beliefs? It is because I did accurately describe the views of many in the movement, but they just did not agree with my assessment. Finally, there were some in the HRM who reached out in kindness, seeking to engage in further dialogue. While circumstances did not permit this dialogue in some cases, I truly appreciate the spirit in which these individuals sought to address our differences.
I would like to use the remainder of this article to respond to some of the major claims that I have read or heard in response to my critique.
Several statements in English versions of the Bible seem to teach that certain Old Testament laws were to be in effect forever. For example, regarding the celebration of Pentecost (Feast of Weeks), Leviticus 23:21 states, “And you shall proclaim on the same day that it is a holy convocation to you. You shall do no customary work on it. It shall be a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations” (italics added). Many other examples of similar wording could be given, such as Exodus 31:13–17 where we read that the Sabbath is to be kept “throughout your generations” and is to be a “perpetual covenant” that lasts “forever.” Don’t these statements prove the claims of the Hebrew Roots proponents regarding the festivals? At first glance, this might seem to be the case, but if we dig a little deeper, we’ll see the problem.
The first problem is that these laws, feasts, and regulations were specifically prescribed for the Israelites. The laws at Mt. Sinai were for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As I explained in great detail in my original article, Acts 15 and many other passages in the New Testament make it very clear that Gentile believers are not required to keep the Law of Moses.
The second problem is that forever and similar phrases in these verses do not necessarily mean forever. Yes, you read that correctly, but before you scoff, thinking that I’m guilty of special pleading, let’s take a look at some other passages in the Torah using the exact same wording. Consider the following lengthy quotation written by a Messianic Jew, Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, in his book titled Israelology:
Those who argue for a mandatory Sabbath observance on the basis of the Law of Moses will often refer to Exodus 31:13, which states that the Sabbath is to be observed throughout your generations; 31:16, that the Sabbath is to be a perpetual covenant; and, 31:17 where it is to be a sign between God and Israel for ever. According to the proponents of mandatory Sabbath-keeping, these terms show that the Sabbath obligation continues, although many other parts of the Mosaic Law are no longer in effect, such as the sacrificial system and the Levitical priesthood. However, while the English terms do tend to carry concepts of eternity, that is not the meaning of the Hebrew words themselves. Classical Hebrew had no word that actually meant “eternal.” The Hebrew term for “forever” (olam) as BDB states, means “long duration,” “antiquity,” or “futurity.” The Hebrew forms mean nothing more than, “until the end of a period of time.” What that period of time is must be determined by the context or determined by related passages. In classical Hebrew, these words never meant or carried the concept of eternity, but had a time limitation. The period of time may have been to the end of a man’s life, or an age, or dispensation, but not for ever in the sense of eternity. This is very clear from examining the usage of the same terminology in other passages.
For example, the same Hebrew term for for ever is used to mean nothing more than up to the end of a man’s life in Exodus 21:6:
Then his master shall bring him unto God, and shall bring him to the door, or onto the door-post; his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for ever. (Not for eternity, but for the rest of his life).
Then thou shalt take an awl, and thrust it through his ear onto the door, and he shall be thy servant for ever. (Not for eternity, but for the rest of his life.)
1 Samuel 1:22:
But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned; and then I will bring him, that he may appear before Jehovah, and there abide for ever. (Not for eternity, but for the rest of his life.)
1 Chronicles 28:4:
Howbeit Jehovah, the God of Israel, chose me out of all the house of my father to be king of Israel for ever: … (David did not rule over Jerusalem for eternity, but he did rule for the rest of his life.)
Other examples where olam means only to the end of a man’s life include Exodus 14:13; Leviticus 25:46; 1 Samuel 20:23 and 27:12. Another way that the same term was used is when God said that He would dwell in the Solomonic Temple for ever in 1 Kings 9:3:
And Jehovah said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou has made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou has built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and my heart shall be there perpetually.
The same statement is made in 2 Chronicles 7:16. However, God left the Temple in the days of Ezekiel. Obviously, for ever here meant the age or period of time of the First Temple only.
In Deuteronomy 23:3, the concept of for ever is clearly limited:
An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of Jehovah; even to the tenth generation shall none belonging to them enter into the assembly of Jehovah for ever.
Obviously here for ever is limited to ten generations.
Even more relevant to the issue at hand is that the same term is applied to other facets of the Law of Moses besides the Sabbath, such as the kindling of the Tabernacle lampstands (Exod. 27:21; Lev. 24:3); the ceremony of showbread (Lev. 24:8); the service of the brazen laver (Exod. 30:21); the Levitical priesthood and the priestly garments (Exod. 28:43; 40:15; Lev. 10:9; Num. 10:8; 18:23; 25:13; 1 Chron. 15:2; 23:13); the sacrificial system, including sacrifices, offerings, etc. (Exod. 29:28; Lev. 7:34, 36; 10:15; Num. 15:15; 18:8, 11, 19; 19:10); and, the Yom Kippur sacrifice (Lev. 16:34). If it is insisted that the Sabbath is still mandatory on the basis of the English word “forever,” then the same thing would have to apply to all these other facets of the Law of Moses. Yet those who insist on mandatory Sabbath-keeping will insist that the Messiah has put an end to all the others.
As for the term perpetual covenant, it is also used of the ceremony of the showbread in Leviticus 24:9.
As for the term throughout your generations, this too is limited in time. It is used of a man’s life (Lev. 25:30); the Levitical priesthood (Exod. 40:15; Lev. 10:9; Num. 10:8; 18:23); the ceremony of the lampstands (Exod. 27:21; Lev. 24:3); the service of the brazen laver (Exod. 30:21); and the sacrificial system (Lev. 7:36; Num. 15:15).
It is inconsistent exegesis to insist on the basis of such terms as forever, throughout your generations, and perpetual covenant that the Sabbath law is still mandatory without incorporating all of these other elements from the Law of Moses for the same reason. (Israelology, pp. 655–657)
Fruchtenbaum’s critique shows conclusively that the phrases from the Torah often used by HRM to argue for the perpetuity of the Law of Moses do not prove the point they seek to make. Let’s look at a few more responses made by some in the HRM to my original article.
Freedom in Romans 14
Romans 14 is often cited in this discussion because Paul spends several verses talking about the freedoms believers have in Christ, particularly regarding dietary regulations and special days. Commentators generally teach that these refer to the regulations in the Law of Moses about diet and holy days, including the Sabbath. Those in the HRM argue that it is in reference to fasting—that a believer is free to fast on whichever day he chooses. To prove this point, one HRM respondent seemed incredulous that I would apply it to the feasts and Sabbaths and “proved” his point by announcing that the word Sabbath doesn’t even appear in the book of Romans. This is true, however, guess what other word doesn’t appear in Romans. If you guessed “fasting” then you would be correct. Paul’s whole point in this section of the letter, as well as portions of 1 Corinthians, Colossians, and most of Galatians is that Christians are not under the Law of Moses, so we need to walk in that freedom Christ has given us. I spent much of my previous article explaining this issue, so I will not belabor it here.
Keep the Commandments?
With so much emphasis on freedom or liberty in Christ, those in the HRM often point out passages in the New Testament that speak of keeping the commandments. I addressed this in my original article, but a few more words should be said here. For example, John wrote, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him’” (1 John 2:3–4). Many other New Testament verses say something similar about the importance of keeping His commandments. Let me state this very clearly: I believe that many in the HRM sincerely desire to follow God wholeheartedly, and they believe that the way to do this is by following the laws He laid out in the Old Testament. I’ve emphasized this statement because I want people to know that I am not challenging their motives or sincerity. I think many of them are very passionate about following the Lord and obeying Him. We simply disagree about how to interpret certain passages in Scripture.
Regarding the commandments mentioned in these New Testament verses, we need to decide which commands are being referenced. I don’t know of anyone who believes it refers to every Old Testament commandment, since that would include the instructions God gave Noah, Abraham, and others. But I also don’t know of any followers of Christ who believe that we need to follow all the commands in the Law of Moses. Many of these had to do with offering sacrifices, and I believe that those in the HRM agree that Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice has rendered these sacrifices unnecessary now.
My view of these passages is that the New Testament authors are referring to the commandments and instructions Jesus Christ gave to His followers and that the Holy Spirit passed on through the writings of the New Testament. Jesus commanded them to love one another (John 15:12–17) and to believe in Him (John 14:1). This matches the teaching about commandments in 1 John quite well. In fact John explains what he means by “commandment” in the following passage.
And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” (1 John 3:22–23)
So John summarizes the commandments as believing in Jesus Christ and loving one another. This is virtually identical to the way Jesus summarized “the greatest commandment”: “You shall love the LORD your God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). This does not imply that we must then follow every law in the Law of Moses. As we’ve already shown, hardly anyone really believes that. It means that as Christians, our goal should be to love God and love one another. In fact, Paul summarized it this way in Galatians 5:14: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Refusing to Correct Heresy
One of the most disturbing things I have noticed about some of the HRM proponents is that they often refuse to correct some of the outright heretical statements made in the comments sections of their blogs, Facebook posts, or YouTube videos. I’ve read comments about Paul being a heretic and the Trinity being a pagan doctrine, and I have yet to see the people who started these posts correct these egregious errors. I am not in any way claiming that they all agree with these ideas, but I sincerely would like to know why they leave such heretical claims unchallenged, particularly when some of these statements receive multiple “Likes” from their followers. They will seek to correct someone like me over matters of the New Testament teaching on the Law of Moses, but they remain silent when someone chimes in with blatant heresy. Perhaps some of these individuals have replied to these errors elsewhere and I just have not seen it. But on one of the videos I watched that had thousands of views and hundreds of comments, there were people who pushed gross heresy in the comments section and the video’s creator never responded to these individuals, even though he responded to many others who commented on lesser matters.
Acts 15, Moses, and the Synagogues
Finally, we come to what I believe is the most important passage in this discussion because it shows us exactly what the apostles decided about whether believing Gentiles needed to keep the Law of Moses. In fact, this is a make or break point for the HRM, and as we will see, the text clearly speaks against their position. Acts 15 is often known as the Jerusalem Council. The apostles gathered to discuss what should be done about the large number of Gentiles coming to faith in Christ. Some of the early Christians, like those who came from the sect of the Pharisees said that it “was necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). But the apostles reached the opposite conclusion, and the chapter states it three times.
Peter encouraged the elders and apostles gathered in Jerusalem not to impose the yoke of the Law of Moses on the Gentiles who were saved by faith in Christ.
Peter spoke first and gave a report of Gentiles who believed the gospel and received the Holy Spirit by faith. Then he pointedly asked, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” In other words, the circumcision and Mosaic law-keeping proposed by the Pharisees was a burden that, according to Peter, was too great for their fathers or for them to bear. Why would they ever think of passing such a burden on to the Gentiles?
After Paul and Barnabas testified to God’s work among the Gentiles, James, the half-brother of Jesus, spoke his mind. “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” So James’ response agreed with Peter’s in that he said that they “should not trouble those from among the Gentiles.” In other words, they were not going to place that yoke of the Law of Moses on the Gentile believers. Instead, James suggested that a letter be written instructing the Gentiles to obey four basic restrictions.
Why did James mention those four restrictions? He tells us in the very next verse. “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” The meaning of James’ reason is rather straightforward, but the HRM has read their own theology into the verse so that it directly contradicts the repeated decision of the council. James wanted the Gentiles to avoid things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, things strangled, and eating animals with their blood still in them. Why would he request this? Because there were Jews attending synagogues every Sabbath in every city who would be quite offended at the actions of Gentile believers who engaged in these practices. The church wanted to avoid unnecessarily offending the very people they sought to reach with the gospel.
So why does the HRM not see this? Well, we Christians have a bad tendency to frequently impose a theological system on the text of Scripture, and the HRM is guilty of reading their own ideas into this verse. Here is the verse again as the rationale for James’ decision, and then I will explain how they see it.
For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath. (Acts 15:21)
According to every HRM person that I’ve heard from on this topic, the reason James wanted the Gentile believers to follow those four restrictions is because they were new believers and the apostles shouldn’t overwhelm them with rules. We agree on this point so far, but then the HRM does something very strange with verse 21. According to their view, James is saying that the Gentiles should follow those four restrictions, and then after that, they will be expected to go to the synagogues every Sabbath to learn the rest of the Law.
There are multiple problems with this. First, nothing in the verse tells us that the Gentiles would be expected to attend the synagogue to learn the rest of the Law. This would go against the very intent of the chapter. Peter and James had already spoken of not imposing a burden on the Gentile believers.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, agreed with Peter that Gentile believers were not required to keep the Law of Moses.
Second, the early church did not meet in synagogues. Paul’s practice was to visit a synagogue shortly after entering a city and preach to the Jews until they would no longer allow him in their midst. This usually lasted a few weeks, and he often won several converts. After being expelled from a synagogue, Paul went to the Gentiles and preached the gospel to them. Are we seriously supposed to think that Gentile Christians were going to be allowed in the synagogues for their regular meetings after many of the Jews rejected Paul’s teaching? The early church often met in house churches, not in the synagogues. This view requires one to completely ignore the reality of the tension that existed between the unbelieving Jews on the one hand and the believing Jews and believing Gentiles on the other.
Third, if James truly limited the restrictions to four because he expected Gentile believers to learn the rest later in life, then why didn’t they include this in their letter to the Gentiles? That’s right, this chapter includes the words of the letter written to the Gentile believers and it never mentions anything about synagogues. In fact, it flatly denies that these believers needed to “be circumcised and keep the law” (Acts 15:24). Here is what they wrote and sent to Antioch by the hand of Paul, Barnabas, Judas (called Barsabas), and Silas:
The apostles, the elders, and the brethren,
To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia:
Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell. (Acts 15:23–29)
Notice that the apostles’ instructions ended with the four restrictions about idolatry, blood, things strangled, and sexual immorality. They never included anything about attending the synagogues to learn the rest of the Law. If the Gentiles were supposed to attend synagogues and learn the Law of Moses, then why didn’t the apostles tell them that? It seems this would be a pretty important point.
Paul frequently taught that Gentile believers were not obligated to keep the Law of Moses. The book of Galatians addresses this topic in detail.
But the Bible has more to say about this specific situation. When Paul returned to Jerusalem years later, he was greeted by James and the other elders. They told him that “myriads of Jews” had believed in Christ and were “zealous for the law.” These people were concerned that in his missionary travels Paul taught “all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). Paul had not taught this to the Jews. To prove this point they decided that he would visit the temple the next day with four men who had taken a vow and make offerings to fulfill their vows. The elders were concerned that Paul and other Jewish believers “walk orderly and keep the law” (Acts 21:24). However, in the very next verse they stated, “But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25). Sound familiar? Notice that the Jewish believers were expected to keep the law, but the Gentiles were still only expected to follow those four restrictions imposed by the Jerusalem Council. Surely, if the HRM is correct about the Gentiles being expected to attend synagogues to learn about the Law of Moses, then they should have been learning it by now. After all, the events in this chapter took place some 6–10 years after the Jerusalem Council.
These two events in Acts match the teachings Paul included in Galatians, Romans, and 1 Corinthians about our freedom from the Law. He told the Galatians plainly, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18, emphasis added).
I believe an excellent way to close this lengthy post is to quote from the book of Ephesians. After writing about the Gentiles who were once far away from the covenants of promise but had now been brought near, Paul spoke of this new entity called the church, composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus Christ.
For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:14–18, emphasis added)
Paul did not say that there are no longer Jews and Gentiles, but that the hostility between them has been removed and they are united in the church. Both believing Jews and believing Gentiles are members of “one body through the cross.” And notice what has been abolished in Christ’s flesh? It is the enmity between the two groups, that is, “the law of commandments contained in ordinances.”
The New Testament is exceedingly clear that Gentile believers do not become Jews upon believing in Jesus Christ, and it is just as clear that Gentile believers are not expected or required to follow the Law of Moses. Christians should rejoice in this freedom Christ has given to us, but we must not allow our liberty to “become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9), that is, to those who do not recognize their liberty in Christ.
There is much more that could be said about this issue, but this post is already about four times the length of a typical blog post. If you plan to reply, please make every effort to do so in the same gentle spirit in which I attempted to write this post, otherwise your comment may not be approved in the review process.
Thanks for reading!