One explanation that occurs to me for why the role of non-Jews vis-à-vis Torah lifestyle is so nebulous and undefined is that it was intended to be essentially open and unconstrained. All that Acts 15 offered was a minimum re-iteration of the Noa’hide principles incumbent upon all humans. Other such principles that were not re-iterated were already common practice in “civilized” society, hence there was no need to cite them in the Acts 15 pronouncement. Thereafter, the implicit instruction is Go, Learn, Do, become the most diligent disciples you can become and pursue greatness in the kingdom.
-from personal correspondence of blog contributor ProclaimLiberty
I’ve been maintaining an email dialog with ProclaimLiberty (PL) and have been given some new things to think about. This “extra meditation” follows “Shepherd, Pens, and Flock, Part 1 and Part 2,” and I hope adds some dimension to what I (and PL) have been trying to say about Jews, Christians, and how God and Torah intersects our lives.
As you can see from the quote above, the application of Torah is not severely limited relative to the non-Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah and indeed, the fact that, as PL says, “the role of non-Jews vis-à-vis Torah lifestyle is so nebulous and undefined is that it was intended to be essentially open and unconstrained” potentially opens a large number of doors. In other words, the ambiguity involved in the New Testament writings about how Torah was to be applied halachically to the non-Jewish disciples was likely quite intentional. I realize this is just a matter of opinion, but when it comes down to it, many of the conclusions people arrive at when studying the Bible are colored by their internal biases and by the theology to which they are adhered. We can try very hard to adhere to objective interpretive standards, but we will not be able to completely stop some part of our personalities from being involved.
In presenting PL’s perspectives on the matter, I’m not claiming to offer an unbiased picture of this topic, but rather, one “biased” in a different and hopefully, a more illuminating direction. You’ll have to decide if it adds “grist to the mill.”
[Note that all the actions cited in verses 19 and 20 are of a continual, habitual, ongoing sort; they are not “once for all time” sorts of activities. Therefore verse 20 is not speaking about any sort of state-change from “unsaved” to “saved”, but rather about the moment-by-moment apprehension and appreciation of a perception or recognition that we are already in a relationship with HaShem, that He is our king and that we obey his Torah instructions because they form the structure and inform the content of our relationship. Verse 20 is not a qualifier or prescription for becoming a “believer”, but rather addresses a quality of life for one who is already a “citizen”. Rav Yeshua was not preaching to a crowd of pagans, but rather to a crowd of fellow Jews who were all members of the Covenant and entitled to the benefits that he was clarifying. That is why, shortly before these verses, he had clarified some of the characteristics of the “kingdom of heaven”, reflected in the attitudes and outlook of its people. Evangelical Christians, and non-Jews in general, are far too frequently misled by the viewpoint of an outsider who must be encouraged to enter into even the most cursory and primitive forms of participation in the covenant (i.e., to become “saved”). They assume everyone is in that same state, and misperceive the state of Jews who are already inside the Covenantal framework and fail to understand or appreciate or benefit from it.]
-PL, commentary on Matthew 5:18-20 from correspondence
Here, not only does PL confirm the continued validity of the Torah as a binding expression of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, but the delineation between its application to Jews vs. non-Jews is mentioned as well. Additionally, PL introduces the concept of a continual “state variability” of anyone participating in covenant relationship with God. Jews, the primary audience of Jesus, were already bound to God by covenant (the focus of this week’s Torah portion), as opposed to an unattached group of “pagan Gentiles” (and even Paul didn’t address Gentiles who were pagans rather than God-fearers until Acts 14). And yet we Christians have a tendency to project ourselves back in time and into the narrative as if the current interpretations and theologies of our various “Christianities” were being applied during the Gospel period.
To be sure, Jesus as Messiah made a great impact on the Jewish covenant relationship and as the fulfillment of many prophesies (and he will fulfill many more to come), but the Messiah also revolutionized the world when, for the first time, he allowed covenant access of the people of the nations to God without requiring Gentiles to convert to Judaism and become equally yoked to Torah!
But how does it work? The complete answer to that question is beyond the scope of this article, but we can start at the beginning (and remember this is representative of a Jewish perspective on Yeshua as Messiah).
Consider the Mishnah tractate Pirkei Avot 1:1, which presents an injunction to “make many disciples” (as well as to “be deliberate in judgement” and to “make a fence around the Torah”).
“Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Yehoshua; Yehoshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets transmitted it to the Anshei Knesset HaG’dolah (Members of the Great Assembly). They made three statements (taught three things): Be deliberate (thoughtful; patient; restrained) in judgment; establish many disciples; and construct a boundary (safety fence) around the Torah.”
Compare this with Rav Yeshua’s instruction (that is called by some “the Great Commission”) as it is actually stated in Matt.28:19-20 of the messianic writings.
18 Then [Rav Yeshua] came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, [immersing] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Verse 19 does not actually include the word “therefore”, but in English it represents a reasonable transition between the statement of verse 18 and the instruction of verse 19. However, the word presented as “go”, or the phrase “therefore go” (i.e., “πορευθέντες”, “poreuthentes”) is not specifically a command, but rather it may be represented as an introduction to the actual command to “make disciples”, saying: “as you pursue your journeying” or “as you arrange your life”, be making many disciples.
Thus we can observe a consistency between Rav Yeshua’s instruction and normative rabbinic expectations.
Consider also that when Rav Yeshua referred to “everything I have commanded you” to obey, he was including the set of fundamental statements he had presented in Matt.5:17-20 that formed a portion of his famous “Sermon on the Mount”. In verse 17 he eliminates any potential misinterpretation about doing away with the Torah (or the Prophetic writings).
-PL, from correspondence
This is an interesting and somewhat different take on what we normally call “the great commission,” and does not contain the dramatic “command” language we are accustomed to reading into this portion of scripture. Rather, as PL states, we see a fairly “normal” directive from the Master to his disciples to continue their activities in his name, which includes the process of adding to the body of disciples as would be expected of the other sects of Judaism in that day. In fact, it wasn’t really unusual for other sects of Judaism to make disciples from the Gentiles, but the process would include those Gentile disciples converting to Judaism as part of the process.
I said just yesterday that when Peter had the opportunity to bring the first Gentile disciples into covenant relationship with God through the Master, that he did not perform the necessary action (circumcising the males among the Gentiles) to convert them to Judaism (see Acts 10:44-48). The Gentile disciples did receive the Holy Spirit and were baptized in water, but they remained Gentile disciples.
But what are the implications of Torah application to these new non-Jewish disciples relative to the Jews who were already born in covenant with God? According to PL in the quote that I used to begin this “meditation,” and using Acts 15 as a jumping off point, the more diligent and mature among the Gentile disciples were allowed to accept upon themselves additional mitzvot as they were called. The ambiguity we find in the New Testament in this arena may indicate that how much of the Torah a Gentile could accept was variable and depended upon the individual involved.
Torah then, was not denied the Gentile, and as I’ve said many times before, it is evident that the “early Christians” (in the time of Paul or even later) looked and acted more “Jewish” than Christians do today and this was perfectly acceptable.
Thus there was a leniency offered, in that non-Jews were not required to keep the entire Torah, but were only required to keep four basic humanitarian and anti-idolatry principles (as was incumbent upon all descendents of Noa’h the ark-builder). And yet there was also stated an open expectation that non-Jews would learn Torah by attending commonly-available teaching each shabbat. Thus they could learn at their own pace the precepts that would allow them to progress in their appreciation of the kingdom of heaven.
Another consideration, that may be in view in chapter 5 verse 2, and possibly in chapter 6 verse 12, is that non-Jews who pursue the Torah voluntarily are viewed in Judaism as worthy of merit greater than that of the Torah-observant Jews for whom it is an obligation. This view reflects the praise for the “b’nei nechar” in Isaiah 56 who keep the Shabbat and hold tight to HaShem and His covenant. Hence non-Jews who were influenced to convert would be deprived of their ability to demonstrate such extra merit as a result of their devotion to Rav Yeshua as the Messiah.
Torah was thus incumbent upon Jews but optional (though instructional) for non-Jews, but for both the sacrifice represented in Rav Yeshua was the appropriate covering for sin that opened a door of access to HaShem, either to approach initially or to return after prior disobedience.
-PL, commentary on Acts 15:19-21 and Galatians 5 and 6 from correspondence
PL unveils before us a sort of “map” where we can see the Gentile disciples beginning at one point on a journey with God through the Messiah. The “starting line” has only a few requirements, but as the non-Jews progress, they are required to study and learn, and allowed to accept whatever Torah lifestyle they are drawn toward. But unlike the Jewish disciples (and all Jews), the specifics of covenant requirements relative to the Torah are not spelled out in full detail with every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed.
A modern messianic rabbi, Dr. Mark Kinzer [in his book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People], describes the situation that Rav Shaul and the Council were advocating as a “bi-lateral ecclesiology”. In other words, the obligations that are incumbent upon Jews are not required of non-Jews, and both groups have valid access to HaShem. Non-Jews are not without obligation altogether, because HaShem has expectations for all the children of Noa’h-the-ark-builder.
Derek Leman on his blog also discussed “bilateralism” recently, and the expected “comment wars” ensued as a result, since it is a rather unpopular term in some sections of Christianity, and evokes unjustified accusations of “racism” by Gentiles of Jews. I can only imagine that PL’s commentary (as well as this blog post) may draw a similar response, but I’m hoping that by my continual presentation of this viewpoint, some readers will begin to see the validity of allowing the Jewish people, including those who count themselves as “Messianic,” to retain their unique covenant status and identity, even as distinct from the uniqueness and love we in the church enjoy in abundance from God through Christ.
As PL pointed out (and Jordan Levy made a similar observation), by Christians attempting to forcibly fuse their (our) identity into the Jewish identity, they (we) are denying themselves (ourselves) the special opportunity to serve God in an exceptionally unique way. Ironically, there may even be some advantage to being a Gentile Christian and accepting some additional Torah mitzvot, on top of our duties to support and uphold the Jewish people and Israel.