- from what has been sacrificed to idols
- from blood
- from what has been strangled
- from sexual immorality
The text of the letter is found in Acts 15:23-29. (Re-statements of these rulings appear in Acts 15:20, 21:25. Also note that manuscript variants exist with different versions of this list.)
Numerous and varied interpretations exist as to the exact intent and purpose of these rulings. Regardless, it is unreasonable to think that these four laws constitute the complete list of obligations of a Gentile before God. They say nothing about stealing, oppression, justice, or honor for parents, for example. Furthermore, the laws are not specific enough to be practical. What, for example, constitutes “sexual immorality”? Where does one go to find that definition, if not the Torah?
Regardless of their exact meaning and purpose, we can see from these rulings that they are not an end, but a beginning of a Gentile’s journey into a life conformed to God’s will. Consider the rationale for these four prohibitions:
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 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. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:19-21)
What purpose does it serve to mention the fact that [the Torah of] Moses is read every Sabbath in the synagogues in conjunction with the list of obligations for Gentiles?
Adapted from Messiah Journal #100
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
As my regular readers must realize by now, I’ve been writing “fast and furious” about the topics of halachah in the Messianic Jewish world and the application of the Torah commandments to Christianity. I feel as if I’m trying to think in two opposite directions simultaneously, and it’s giving me a headache. But it’s also fascinating me and as you can tell, I can’t put these topics down. It is or should be part of the continual dialog between the believing Jewish and Gentile communities, and provide a point where we can meet to compare our similarities and our differences; a place in the meadow where the sheep from the two sheep pens participate in the flock of the Good Shepherd (see John 10:1-18).
I’m not a real fan of the term “divine invitation,” mainly because I don’t think it can be derived from the Bible or even necessarily implied. I’d rather have the Christian’s role in relation to Judaism defined by a more substantial mission.
That doesn’t mean to say that I disagree with Aaron, but his article poses more questions than answers. He suggests that more of the Torah and the Prophets apply to the Gentile church than what is intimated in the “Jerusalem letter,” but he doesn’t define just how far we are to take it. I suppose the answers are contained elsewhere, but I’m not going to wait until I can discover their location in order to comment.
Aaron says correctly that Israel has always been intended to be a light to the nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Isaiah 49:1-6). This “light” is to extend well beyond the first coming of the Messiah and project itself far into the Messianic Age (Micah 4:1-2, Isaiah 42:1-4). He even goes so far as to suggest that Messiah always meant the Torah to be the light for the Gentiles:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others [anthropon, literally “men, humans, mankind”], so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
But as I’ve previously said, just how was and is the Torah meant to be applied to the Jewish and Gentile populations of believers? As I’ve met Aaron and I know Boaz Michael as well as the philosophy of FFOZ. I know they don’t believe in a theology that does away with Jewish identity and fuses Jew and Gentile believers into a homogeneous mass of generic humanity, but how we Gentiles are to “do” Torah has never been clear, except as an effect of love of God and of humanity, which I have commented on and related to the new commandment of Messiah.
I did suggest to my Pastor not too long ago that if a Christian wanted to voluntarily choose to take on additional mitzvot as a personal conviction, it would not be such a bad thing. The fact that he lived in Israel for fifteen years meant, in his case, that he did observe such things as Shabbat and a form of kosher, because his environment supported it. Granted, the environment outside of Israel is less friendly to Jewish observance, particularly among Christians, but that doesn’t mean a Christian who is so led can’t perform some of the same “Torah” out of love and solidarity, especially in interfaith families such as mine.
But why can’t Gentile Christians simply mimic Jewish religious behavior down to the last detail? I mean, what’s the problem if, as Aaron says, the Torah is for the Gentiles, too?
Each human being possesses a unique combination of personality, talents, timing and circumstances – a specific role to play in this world. Our role is dependent on many factors – not only our innate talents, but also on the needs of the times.
The important thing is to discover your unique contribution – and fulfill it.
The Torah tells us that one day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster killing a Jew.
“And Moses looked all around, and when he saw that there was no man, he took action.” (Exodus 2:11-12)
Why does the Torah tell us “there was no man”? Because Moses was checking to see if someone else was available, someone better qualified to do the job. Because if you reach for leadership when it’s not necessary, then you’re doing it more out of your own desire than for the needs of the people. Only when Moses saw there was nobody else qualified, did he take action.
If Gentile Christians were to observe the mitzvot in a manner completely like the Jewish people, then the most straightforward way to accomplish this would be for Jews to convert Gentiles to Judaism. While such a process didn’t exist in the days of Moses because Israel was organized around tribal identity, and after the Babylonian exile, around clan identity (see Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Westminster John Knox Press; 2006) it was completely available in the days of Jesus. But that didn’t happen in the New Testament as the application of Christ’s Matthew 28:19-20 command. We see this acted out by Peter in response to Cornelius and his household:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
–Acts 10:44-48 (ESV)
Notice what didn’t happen here. If it had been Peter’s intention to convert the Gentiles to Judaism, between Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit and being baptized in water, Peter should have arranged for Cornelius and the other men to be circumcised. He didn’t and in fact, we don’t see any of the new disciples of Christ from among the nations ever converting to Judaism (I believe Timothy was considered Jewish because of his Jewish mother and that’s why Paul circumcised him). Paul spent a great deal of effort in his letter to the Galatians specifically discouraging them from converting, and as I’ve said before, also citing Paul from Galatians, if you’re not a Jew or a righteous convert, you are not obligated to the full “yoke of Torah,” both as defined by the actual Books of Moses and the Prophets, and by accepted halachah.
Rabbi Weinberg suggests that we are each created for a purpose as individuals and should pursue that purpose in order to fulfill God’s design for our lives. What if it’s true that God’s intent was and is to have a specific purpose for the Jews and another (and perhaps overlapping) specific purpose for the Gentile Christians?
Jesus opens all the doors and holds all the keys. He is the portal by which we Gentiles enter into any sort of covenant relationship with God at all, and he also fully reconciles and restores the Jewish nation to the Father as the fulfillment of all His covenants with and His promises to the Jewish people. Make no mistake, the Sinai covenant made between God and Israel didn’t vanish simply because Messiah came. It would be insane to suggest otherwise. Not only did Jesus live a lifestyle in obedience to Torah and not only did his teachings support Torah and the Temple, but his Jewish disciples were never seen to do otherwise, either. The history of the Messianic movement forward isn’t abundantly clear, but I don’t believe that next generation of Jews after Paul and Peter were any less Jewish even as they continued to worship Jesus as Messiah (we never see Paul, for example, telling Timothy that he doesn’t have to observe the mitzvot as a Jew).
But that’s a direction I’m saving for part 2 of this article. For now, although we don’t have an image we could define as crystal clear regarding just how far to apply Torah to Christians, we do know that it is well-applied in the weighty matters of the Law: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.