Return to Jerusalem, Part 2

Torah at SinaiFor this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 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?’ 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?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (ESV)

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)

Peter’s statement, which seems to disparage the Torah, presents no difficulty for traditional Christian interpretation. Gentile Christianity has always taken a dim view of Torah and is glad to dismiss “Old Testament law” as an unbearable yoke. Disdain for the Torah is not a Jewish perspective. Instead, the apostles teach that “the Torah is spiritual,” “the Torah is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” and most pertinent to Peter’s so-called deprecation, God’s commandments are not unbearable: “His commandments are not burdensome.”

Given this positive view of the Torah and the fact that 1 John 5:3 explicitly says that God’s commandments are not burdensome, could Simon Peter have referred to the Torah as a yoke “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?”

-D. Thomas Lancaster
Torah Club, Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
from First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)
Torah Portion Yitro (“Jethro”) (pg 437)
Commentary on Acts 15:1-20

This is Part 2 of this multi-part series on Acts 15 and its implications for Christians and Jews today. If you haven’t done so already, please read Part 1 before continuing here.

So how could Peter believe that the Torah was too difficult for his Jewish fathers (ancestors) and his Jewish people to bear and still presumably believe that the Torah was good, spiritual, holy, and righteous?

In some of my previous talks with my Pastor about Jewish obligation to Torah, one of the areas we discussed was whether or not it was possible to obey the Law perfectly. Pastor Randy says “no” and I tend to agree with him because as Paul has said, ” for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) I may upset some of my Jewish readers, but personally, I don’t think that any Jewish person (let alone any non-Jew who has ever tried) has ever perfectly performed all of the mitzvot, from the day it was given by God to the Children of Israel through Moses, forward to the present.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

James 2:10 (ESV)

Funny that James should write such a thing, when he was also present with the council of Apostles listening to Peter speak about how much of a burden Torah is. James seems to be saying that it is impossible to keep the Torah because there are so many difficult commandments, and this verse, along with Peter’s statement, are part of the scriptures many Christians use to justify how the Law is now dead (and sometimes Judaism along with it) and has been replaced by grace (and sometimes replaced by Christians).

Is there an alternate way of understanding all of this and also preserving Jewish devotion to Torah for the Messianic Apostles and disciples? Lancaster in his commentary on Acts 15 seemed to think so.

To insist that Simon Peter could not have referred to the Torah’s obligations as a difficult burden simply because other texts contradict that sentiment denies a literal reading of Scripture. Peter was able to articulate the idea that, though the Torah is a source of blessing and holiness, it is also difficult. A naive, rigid, theological reading, which cannot tolerate tension between one passage and another, will find this difficult, but the Jewish voice, following the contour of Hebraic thought, would find no difficulty in admitting it.

-ibid, pp 437-8

Talmud Study by LamplightNevertheless, some commentators have attempted to reduce the “tension” Lancaster mentions by insisting that the “Torah” Peter was speaking of was the “Oral Law of the Pharisees,” even though Acts 15:5 specifically references the “law of Moses.”

But Peter, as a Jew who had lived in the Jewish homeland all his life, and had observed the mitzvot and halachah all of his life, knew what he was talking about, and so did his Jewish audience. If Peter had required that the Gentile disciples all convert to Judaism, he would be requiring them to be obligated to the full weight of the Torah. While it is an honor to serve God and to walk in His ways as a Jew, it is not easy.

A yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear…

Acts 15:10

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

Galatians 5:1-2

Paul echos Peter’s statement and describes a state in which, should a Gentile disciple convert and be bound to Torah, he or she will be obligated unrelentingly to the full weight of the yoke of the Law. According to Lancaster this includes the following:

Previous generations of Jewish history had already proven the Torah to be an unbearable duty for sinful human beings. The Torah is a source of blessing, but outside the Messiah’s righteousness, it is also a source of curse. All men sin and fall short of the glory of God and incur his wrath. “The law brings wrath.” (Romans 4:15). Peter only means to point out that obligation to the Torah (Jewish status) is not an avenue to salvation.

In addition to the theological ramifications of forcing Gentile believers to become Jewish and keep the whole yoke of Torah, the apostles also had in mind the very practical implications of such a decision. If the Gentile believers took on halalaic Jewish status, they placed themselves under the authority of the Torah courts (including the Sanhedrin, which was at the time, hostile to believers)…

-ibid, pg 438

Lancaster may be reading between the lines about what the Apostles were and weren’t thinking about, but it’s a reasonable assumption. If the Gentiles could only be saved by converting to Judaism and converting to Judaism meant full halalaic obligation to Torah and the traditions, then any theological and legal consequences for failure to perform the mitzvot correctly landed right on their shoulders. This also means that any particular blessings Gentiles are intended to receive because they are Gentiles attaching themselves to God, would be lost when they converted.

Before we continue, I want to point out something special Lancaster said:

The Torah is a source of blessing, but outside the Messiah’s righteousness, it is also a source of curse.

If the Torah has always been too difficult to obey, and outside of Messiah, it is a source of both blessings and curses, why did God give the Torah at one point in history and bring the Messiah much later?

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Romans 4:1-3

Faith in God and God’s graciousness to humanity was always the foundation. Paul made a point to tell that to the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome. The Torah does not justify you. It never did. Torah was never the mechanism by which an individual or the nation of Israel was justified before God. It was by faith. The mitzvot were, in many ways, given originally to be sort of the “national constitution” of ancient Israel, and a description of the way of life the Israelites were to live because they were God’s chosen ones. Yes, part of the Torah was to enable Israel to be a light to the nations and to attract them (us) to God, but Torah didn’t exist for its own sake, at least not according to Paul.

What did Peter have to say about this?

But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts 15:11

key-of-kingdomHis response to those Jews who believed the Gentiles must convert to Judaism to be saved was to say that by placing the Torah upon the Gentiles, it would be an unbearable yoke for them…and for the Gentiles, who after all were not standing there with the Israelites at Sinai, conversion and full Torah obligation wasn’t necessary. Like the Jews, they were also saved through the grace of Christ. Both Jewish and Gentile believers were and are saved only through the grace of Messiah, but the Jews retain additional obligations under the yoke of Torah, which they can bear because of Moshiach’s righteousness.

But where does Peter get off making such a decision (or at least arguing for making such a decision) for the Gentiles?

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

You may have your own opinion on what you think Christ giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom” means. Here’s Lancaster’s interpretation:

“Since the elders agreed with what had been said by Peter, the whole assembly kept quiet.” (see Acts 15:12) The Master had given Simon Peter the “keys to the kingdom of heaven,” the halachic authority to bind and to loose in matters concerning His assembly. Simon’s testimony made it clear that he loosed the Gentiles from the obligation of circumcision and coming under the yoke of Torah as Jews.

-ibid, pg 439

In other words, Jesus personally gave Peter halalaic authority to make binding decisions for the disciples, Jews and Gentiles, who were members of the sect “the Way.”

I’ll stop here and pick up with James and his summation of the arguments that had been presented in the next part of this series, but I do want to make clear what’s been said so far. Although many Jews did not comprehend how the Gentile disciples could become disciples without conversion to Judaism, Peter (see Part 1) reminded the assembly that Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit and were baptized but were not circumcised, thus illustrating that salvation was also available to the Gentiles without converting to Judaism.

We have to go to Galatians to support Peter’s argument that only being born Jewish or converting to Judaism required a person to be obligated to perform the full body of Torah mitzvot. This was apparently a common understanding among all of the Jews present and no one disputed it.

Peter had the halalaic authority to make such decisions or at least to seriously suggest them before the council (and James was the head of the council, so his response is still required before any conclusions can be made), so that, plus his experience with Cornelius, made him more than qualified to say that the Gentile disciples should not be made to convert to Judaism and it would be “testing God” (see Luke 4:12) to do otherwise.

But the final decision hasn’t been made. We still need to review James’s response to all of the testimony presented and then his (and the Holy Spirit’s) final decision on the matter. We’ll begin with the response of James in Part 3.

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17 thoughts on “Return to Jerusalem, Part 2”

  1. You seem to say Jewish disciples are saved by grace (like Gentile disciples) but are still obligated to keep the Torah (unlike Gentile disciples). I think the grace Peter talks about in Acts 15:11 is not just “justification” or forgiveness, but is especially the Holy Spirit Peter has named in 15:8-9 as the one who was (the grace) given by God to both Jews and Gentiles, and who cleansed their hearts by faith. This cleansing from the Spirit includes what 1 Pet. 1:2 refers to: being sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ; this is especially about loving one another, having been purified from the heart (1 Pet. 1:22). Thus Peter emphasizes what Paul does, the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness) that also echoes Jesus’ blessings for his disciples (blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers); this fruit and blessing comes from the grace of the Spirit and saves us from lives of sin, and from other obligations, including much in the Torah (like hating and destroying Canaanites in the promised land, i.e., hating your enemies, which Jesus told his Jewish disciples to no longer do in Mt. 5:43f.).

  2. Greetings Lucas, and thanks for commenting.

    Yes, you are correct, I (and Lancaster in his commentary on Acts 15) am saying that I believe both Jews and non-Jews are saved in the exact same way, though Jesus Christ. That’s what Peter said and his statement seems pretty clear.

    I also think that the Jerusalem Council didn’t suddenly throw out the Jewish obligation to the Torah mitzvot. First of all, in Acts 15, the context is clear. The purpose of the meeting was to result the issue of what do to with the Gentiles. Jewish obligation to Torah was a given and if it had been the intent of James and the Council to abrogate the Torah for the Jewish believers in the Jewish sect of “the Way,” I believe they would have selected a separate forum to discuss such a monumental decision. Future parts of this series (I’m anticipating two more) will address this matter further.

    I don’t see any inconsistency between being sanctified by the Spirit and (for Jews) performing the mitzvot. The examples of the Torah you selected were pretty strange since most of the time, the Jews in Christ’s day (not to mention today) aren’t going around destroying large numbers of people (such as the Canaanites, and if you’ll recall, when the Children of Israel went to war with them, it was at the direct command of God, not something they decided to do on their own).

    While how performance of the mitzvot (commandments) is done by Jews today who are also Messianic (disciples of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and Son of God) is up for debate (the topic of just about every blog post I published last week), I don’t necessarily see that Torah and grace for a Jew are mutually exclusive.

    To “cut to the chase,” so to speak, we should probably just agree to disagree now and get it over with. I know that in much of the church (but not all of it), what I’m saying is very controversial, but it is my first belief that the God of Israel and the Jewish Messiah King did not and does not require Jews to totally surrender who they are as Jews and God’s chosen people from the days of Sinai, in order to become Jewish disciples of the Jewish King.

    The main point of this particular series is the problem of how we Gentiles were supposed to be integrated into what had been an exclusively Jewish religious movement, however within certain limits, I don’t mind discussing your points. I will tell you though that I’m not a big fan of supersessionism (also called “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology”), particularly in the realm of eschatology, which tends to see no future at all for Jews besides conversion to Christianity (the Gentile kind) or death.

    You should also know that my wife is Jewish as are my children, so depending on your attitudes and ideas about Jewish people and Judaism in general, I ask that you keep that in mind. Thanks.

  3. Good points, and a well thought out piece, James.

    Where it gets fishy for me is deciding whether or not the “yoke” spoken of here by James is not necessarily the law, in and of itself, but the hope of salvation through obedience to the law alone. (Legalism)

    “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 15:1

    That yoke certainly is, “unbearable,” for we would all be under the curse of the law, receiving our due wages for transgression (sin), thus, still found in slavery to that last enemy, death.

    I think a fairly good point is made by those advocating “One Law” positions that the debate wasn’t ever about whether or not a Gentile should try to keep torah, but rather that keeping torah in and of itself is not possible, and thus salvation in the eyes of G-d is only granted by Grace through Yeshua our Messiah.

    Hope you’re day is going well, friend.

    Peace to you.

  4. Hi Nate,

    I don’t see that the Apostles were saying that they ever believed obedience to the mitzvot “saved” anyone. Going back to Abraham (which is what Paul does in his letter to the Romans), it’s faith that justifies us before God. However, God gave a special chosen identity to the Hebrews and defined Israel as a nation through the Torah. The Torah didn’t “save” the Israelites, their faith in God did. However who they are and their specific responsibilities to God are spelled out in covenant, including the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

    Gentiles were not a people called by God’s Name, so the question was, how to include them as equal partakers of salvation. Peter had already seen in Acts 10 that God was impartial as far as salvation was concerned by giving the Holy Spirit to the believing Gentiles without them first having to convert to Judaism.

    But from the point of view of James, Peter, Paul, and the other Jewish apostles and disciples, Torah obedience was only applied to the Jews.

    Do you see where I’m going with this? We can easily separate full Torah obedience from salvation, justification, and relationship with God for Gentiles and Jews but we can’t separate Torah obedience from the Jews. Salvation is through faith and Messiah by God’s grace, but the full yoke of Torah was and is for the Jews.

    This doesn’t mean that Torah is inaccessible to the Gentiles. In fact, most of what it is to be “a good Christian” is documented in Torah (loving your neighbor, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving).

    As far as whether or not keeping the Torah is possible humanly, I’ve already said “no.” For that matter, no one has perfectly pleased God and kept all of his requirements without flaw (I can only guess that the statement we find in Luke 18:21 doesn’t mean the speaker was “perfect” but rather, when he erred, he repented and, if required, offered the appropriate sacrifices). That’s what grace is for. If there was no grace from the very beginning of humanity, then humanity wouldn’t exist today.

    We are all saved by grace and faith, however the Jewish people have additional responsibilities to God above and beyond what is required by we Gentile Christians.

  5. I agree with most all you say there.

    I should have clarified, that it wasn’t the apostles speaking as if salvation came from the law alone, but rather, the “some men” who came down from Judea.

    Certainly, the apostles were advocating that they “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

    Playing devils advocate here (I have no stake in either camp as it were, for clarification’s sake);

    From 1 John 3:4 we learn that, “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.”

    Paul states in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death.”

    If sin is the breaking of the law, and our wages for this are death, we are, as Paul states, “dead in our sins.”

    I’m just trying to clarify here what we are being “saved” from. It’s my opinion that Yeshua did not come so that we were “saved” to go to Heaven, and those who are “lost” are going to Hell as popular Christian belief holds. Rather I believe that He saved us from the bondage to sin itself, and hence, death itself; that, through Him, through his Grace, we are given life, and life “abundantly.”

    You said;

    We are justified by faith – agreed.

    Torah doesn’t save (again, what are we being saved from) Israel, faith in G-d does – ultimately, agreed.

    Gentiles were not called by G-d – agreed.

    But from the point of view of James, Peter, Paul, and the other Jewish apostles and disciples, Torah obedience was only applied to the Jews. – not sure where I stand yet (that’s the whole crux, of course).

    As far as whether or not keeping the Torah is possible humanly, I’ve already said “no.” – agreed, except of course in Yeshua’s case.

    That’s what grace is for. If there was no grace from the very beginning of humanity, then humanity wouldn’t exist today. – agreed.


    Of course, the crux of the argument (should Gentile believers follow the law) is far more complicated than either side might have it look; I’m sure you can attest to this, having been around the Hebrew roots block yourself, so to speak.

    I don’t have all of the answers myself, nor am I decided on the issue. As I see it, both sides have rather decent arguments, and I’m still weighing them evenhandedly.

    For now though, off to work. I look forward to reading the continuing posts, James.

    Take care now, and Shalom to you.

  6. Of course, the crux of the argument (should Gentile believers follow the law) is far more complicated than either side might have it look; I’m sure you can attest to this, having been around the Hebrew roots block yourself, so to speak.

    Over lunch, I was mapping out my strategy for the rest of this series and it looks like I’ll need a total of six parts to cover two-weeks worth of Lancaster’s commentary on Acts 15. Tomorrow will address James’s initial response, Part 4, will cover a lot of what we have been discussing now; the application of Torah for the Gentile and Jew in Messiah.

    As far as the letter itself and the meaning and analysis of the four prohibitions (they’re a lot more complicated than they seem on the surface), that will take two more blog posts but I think you’ll find (as I’m finding) that a lot more Torah goes into being a Gentile believer than you might imagine. Further, according to Lancaster, the early Gentile disciples may have adhered for a lot more of what we consider “Judaism” than would be thought typical in today’s church.

    I’m probably going to have to re-read Toby Janicki’s article “A Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses,” which was originally published in Messiah Journal 109. I reviewed it over a year ago and I remember that I was surprised that so much of what we think of as “Jewish observance” may have applied to the original Gentile disciples. We indeed may discover that the church today has been a tad remiss in following the original directives of the Jerusalem Council.

    Anyway, please continue to follow the series and let me know what you think.

    Blessings, Nate.

  7. This is great stuff. One thing to remember is to be careful to not infuse too much of the later Rabbinic world into the 2nd Temple period. Much of what we understand about Judaism is only a later reality that has some overlap, but not completely. However, your writing definitely contributes to the discussion of what was meant in the NT writings.

    A current Jewish scholar commented – “Two Judaisms survived the destruction of the 2nd Temple: Rabbinic Judaism from (largely the House of Hillel), and Christianity (from both Hillel and Hellenic-Judaism).

  8. One thing I am looking to focus on is something you highlighted – the Evangelical Christian line that goes “you can’t follow all the law”. Really? What’s strange about that statement is that a good part of the Torah is about repentance. It assumes that you are breaking the Torah’s regulations regularly. And, the sacrificial-levitical laws are light compared to most health-codes in modern slaughter houses 😉

  9. One thing to remember is to be careful to not infuse too much of the later Rabbinic world into the 2nd Temple period.

    Thanks, Andrew. I’ve received that piece of advice before from Jewish sources as well. Keep in mind though, that I’m presenting D. Thomas Lancaster’s lessons on Acts 15, so the quotes from later Jewish sages are his.

    However, your writing definitely contributes to the discussion of what was meant in the NT writings.

    Thanks.

    One thing I am looking to focus on is something you highlighted – the Evangelical Christian line that goes “you can’t follow all the law”. Really? What’s strange about that statement is that a good part of the Torah is about repentance. It assumes that you are breaking the Torah’s regulations regularly. And, the sacrificial-levitical laws are light compared to most health-codes in modern slaughter houses

    As far as following all of the Torah ordinances, you can’t really, because of the lack of a Temple, Sanhedrin, Levitical priesthood and such. There may be about two-hundred or so of the 613 commandments codified by the Rambam that a Jew can observe today (a few more if they live in Israel). Also, and especially adding modern Orthodox halachah, perfectly observing each and every one of the mitzvot on a continual basis throughout a human lifetime would be an amazing feat. Usually most of us slip up and make mistakes just in our ordinary day-to-day living. I think the various NT writers were correct in saying this (Peter in Acts 15 and James in James 2).

    As far as the standards for a kosher slaughter including the physical condition of the animals involved, as I understand it, kosher isn’t primarily a health matter as it is a religious/standards matter. Or as my wife says, just because it’s kosher doesn’t mean it’s healthier, it just means that it’s kosher.

    But I guess it depends on how “Torah” is defined, and as my weekly conversations with my Pastor prove to me, the definitions are many.

  10. One thing Christianity teaches is that Jews keep the commandments (the ones who do, anyway) in order to earn their salvation. However, my understanding is that the commandments are kept not to merit salvation, rather to remain in their covenant with God. A different thing altogether.

    1. LW, not really and ‘sort of’. The Jewish definition of ‘salvation’ is very different. And the definition of ‘salvation’ during the 2nd Temple is even more different. And, the idea of Torah keeping to ‘merit’ salvation is only half accurate. Keeping Torah means they trust God’s mercy (grace) that will grant liberation for Israel / Jewish people and grant them a portion in the Olam HaBa (World to Come). They would probably agree more with the explanation from the Christian book of Jacob (James) – “Faith (Trust in God) is shown through your good works.”

  11. Andrew, I base my remarks on what Jewish people say and Jewish sources but with an emphasis on Christianity’s understanding of the issues.

    Unfortunately evangelical Christianity (of which I’ve been a part of my whole life) bases everything on “salvation.” “Keep the sabbath on SATURDAY you say? Oh no, that’d be legalistic and attempting to earn one’s salvation!” (Of course many are willing to keep the Sabbath on a day of the week of their choosing, just so long as it ISN’T Saturday)

    This response permeates even in conversations where both parties know and believe that they’re already are saved. EC never seems to get to the point where in reflects on “now that I’m saved, how should I live?

    I agree the Torah builds in mercy, grace, and forgiveness. But from the Christian paradigm that is more worried about being “legalistic” than being in rebellion, it is a big difference. Additionally, the Torah explains keeping the commandments as Jews remaining in their covenant. (I’m not saying here that to not keep Sabbath is being in rebellion, I only used that as a typical EC reaction)

    Like C. S. Lewish said: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”

    What I mean in this instance, is that God remains faithful and Jews remain Jews, but they can walk away from their covenant.

    1. Well put. And James, that’s what I am referring to – “salvation” doesn’t mean the same thing to the two communities. James, you refer to the “Kol Yisrael” (All Israel) concept in both pre-rabbinic and post rabbinic Judaism. Paul saw a time when “all Israel” will be known as saved through Messiah Yeshua even despite the current rejection (Romans). This is not a discussion of “individual salvation” that is highlighted in today’s US EC. While i think there are some wonderful benefits for gentiles to keep a Shabbat, I don’t think it is an “obligation” per se. I do see that it is still obligatory for the jewish people.

  12. Andrew and LW, the way I relate to your conversation is more on the level of redemption. Relative to the Jewish people, redemption is thought of as corporate…God will redeem the nation of Israel. In Christianity, redemption is thought of working only at the level of the individual.

  13. While i think there are some wonderful benefits for gentiles to keep a Shabbat, I don’t think it is an “obligation” per se. I do see that it is still obligatory for the jewish people.

    Agreed.

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