The Mystery of Romans: Apostolic Decree and the Obedience of Faith

Apostolic DecreeIt is important to note that the major tenets of the decree were practiced by the early Christian gentiles for several centuries, although this fact is not considered by most scholars to demonstrate that Paul accepted or taught it in his gentile mission. Somehow it is assumed that Paul was generally unaware of the decree, or that if he was aware of it he did not accept it. Why has Christianity so overlooked this feature of Paul’s missionary teaching?

-Mark Nanos
“Chapter 4: The Apostolic Decree and the ‘Obedience of Faith,'” pp 201-2
The Mystery of Romans: The Jewish Context of Paul’s Letters

I’m finally able to get back to my series of reviews on this landmark book of Nanos’. I’m not going to pick through the entire chapter, but the section of Chapter 4 called “The Apostolic Decree and the Message of Romans” caught my attention. I’m rather interested in the legal decision of the Council of Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) that established binding halachah on the Gentile disciples of the Jewish religious stream known as “the Way.” My opinion is that Paul very much had to know about this decree and certainly, if he considered himself under the authority of the Council, an authority established by Messiah, then agree or not, Paul had to accept it and even teach it.

And how could Paul not be aware of this decree?

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

Acts 15:1-2 (NASB)

So Paul, Barnabas, and their Jewish opponents traveled to Jerusalem together to seek out the Council’s authority on the matter in dispute (whether or not Gentiles had to convert to Judaism and take on the full yoke of Torah as an obligation in order to enter into the Messianic religious order), which would include giving testimony and being present for the final verdict. I have no idea how any New Testament scholar could miss so obvious a passage of scripture.

As I did previously, I’m going to review my notes and “brain dump” the data here with just a bit of polishing. Hopefully, this will carry the meaning of this section of the chapter and my impressions of the information presented.

In stark contrast to this consensus, however, I see the apostolic decree operating in the background of Paul’s bold “reminder” to Rome. In addition to his clear agenda to explain the new status of the gentile believing in Jesus Christ as equal, though governed by the principles of behavior outlined for the “righteous gentile” in the Council’s apostolic decree, several specific references suggest that his addressees share with Paul the knowledge of the decree in its original, though certainly fluid format. We have seen how central the issue of accommodating the dietary concerns of the “weak” were in order to win them to faith in Christ. Further, I find traces in the formal feature of the opening and closing of the letter, in the rhetorical structure, and in several key phrases and concepts that Romans is actually Paul’s exposition, by way of reminder, of the apostolic decree in view of his intended visit, and yet necessary delay.

-Nanos, pp 206-7

My commentary on Chapter 3 mentioned that the “reminder” was Paul to the Gentile believers in Rome, reasserting the form and function of the Gentile’s role in “the Way” in relation to the Jewish believers in specific and Jewish people in general. The “weak” were not the Jewish believers who felt they had to continue observing the Torah mitzvoth as opposed to accepting the grace of Christ, but rather the Jewish non-believers who were struggling with accepting faith in Yeshua as Messiah. A large part of the apostolic decree was designed to allow a basic relationship between the believing Gentiles and Jewish people. The so-called “strong” were over-emphasizing their “freedom” from Torah at the expense of the Jewish non-believers they associated with in the synagogue, damaging the reputation of Messiah and “the Way” as a Judaism.

King Priest TorahWe see from the general message in Galatians that Paul did not support Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement for justification before God, and that he stated point-blank that if the Gentiles were to allow themselves to be circumcised and convert, they would be obligated to the full yoke of the Torah, and the sacrifice of Messiah would become useless (Galatians 5:1-2). Applying that to Romans, Paul knew that the Gentiles were not obligated to the Torah in the manner of the Jews and also knew that the apostolic decree established an alternate set of behavioral constraints and requirements that defined the role of the Gentile disciple, not only in relation to God, but to the Jewish people as well.

He is responsible for the “obedience of the Gentiles” that results from his apostolic preaching of the gospel (15:18-19, 20ff.) and he will not be satisfied with the situation in Rome until he has arrived to fulfill this obligation (1:14-15)…

Within this context, Paul is expecting the “obedience of the Gentiles” to conform to the apostolic decree for the sake of the unbelieving Jews that they may not be further alienated from Messiah, but drawn nearer. It was within the power of the Gentiles in Rome to “thumb their noses” as it were to the Jewish people, but that would result in pushing Jews who were already doubtful that the crucified Rabbi from Nazareth was the Messiah into complete rejection.

The key statement in this part of Chapter 4 is this:

It is Paul’s hope that the Romans will receive him and his message of their obligations with respect to the decree in the same positive way as we find Luke describes (Acts 15:30-31) Paul’s earlier missionary reception. For the decree was not an unwelcome burden, but a powerful declaration of the inclusion of gentiles as equals, by faith and without becoming Jews, in the people of God. It was a sign of the fulfillment of the eschatological promise of the blessings for all the world in Israel’s Christ. And it was understood to be a minimal demonstration of appropriate purity behavior for association with the Jewish community (Israel, the historical people of God), on the part of the gentiles who maintained they had become equal coparticipants in the promised blessings. Indeed, it bore witness to their indebtedness to Israel for her present suffering on their behalf.

-Nanos, pg 211

The apostolic decree was the minimum set of standards required of the Gentiles to honor their indebtedness to the Jewish people and Israel as a whole for the realized blessings that resulted in Gentiles being equal coparticipants in salvation and reconciliation with God without having to be circumcised (convert) and be obligated to the full Torah.

My understanding is that the Gentiles could accept more than the minimum requirements up to and including the full “yoke of the Lord,” but this was entirely voluntary. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see the opposite happening. The Gentile believers in Paul’s readership were not even achieving the minimums set out in the apostolic decree and failing to acknowledge the Jewish people as the source of the blessings they were so comfortably operating within.

Gentile obedience to the decrees of the Council would result in the proper display of the relationship between non-Jewish believers and the general Jewish community, and disobedience sacrifices the “weak” among the Jews in the Roman synagogue to a failure of faith in Messiah.

I find an interesting parallel in Paul’s writing in how the Church approaches the Jewish people today. Christianity in the modern era also flaunts its “freedom” to the Jews and conversely denigrates the Torah, claiming that Jews are now “free from the Law” as if that would be some great relief to Jewish people. Gentile Christians would blithely eliminate the Torah from the lives of Jewish converts to Christianity, ignoring the destruction of Jewish identity and ultimately the Jewish people as a separated and called out nation before God.

Today, we “gentilize” the Jews as well as the modern incarnation of Jewish religion of “the Way” (i.e. “the Church) in the same manner as the Gentiles Paul was addressing in Rome. We in the Church are just as disobedient to the binding decrees of those whom Jesus assigned authority to as were the Roman Christians in Paul’s letter. Granted, much has changed since the apostolic era, and the body of Christ is totally separated from its “Jewish roots,” but that condition is not permanent.

The programmatic “obedience of faith” echoes the spirit of the Jerusalem Council’s intentions in setting forth the need for the Christian gentiles of Rome to obey the particulars outlined in the apostolic decree. Paul was concerned to remind them boldly of proper monotheistic behavior for “righteous gentiles” in their association with non-Christian Jews, and specifically halakhic matters of dietary and sexual conduct (12:1-15:3).

…Whatever grammatical construct one might prefer, the “obedience of faith” articulated Paul’s uncompromising commitment to the deeper intentions of the Shema, embracing both the election of Israel and the inclusion of gentiles equally — for God is One! The contours of Paul’s argument have been overlooked because interpreters have misunderstood his focus on gentile inclusion through faith alone, ostensibly dismissing Torah obedience as obsolete. However, if we recognize that Paul was addressing Christian gentiles tempted to consider themselves as having supplanted Israel and thus no longer obligated to obey “the teaching” of the apostolic decree (for why would they need to be concerned with the “acceptance” of the “stumbling” of Israel and their “opinions” of the proper purity behavior for “righteous gentiles”; if Israel had been cut off they are free to eat all things!), then we can readily follow Paul’s nuanced discussion of circumcision and Torah.

-Nanos, pp 237-8

going-to-church-sketchesGentiles who consider themselves as having supplanted the Jewish people in the blessings of God due to their faith in Messiah do not enhance Jewish desire to approach Messiah-faith, but inhibit it. By considering the apostolic authority to bind the Gentile disciples to a set of principles as obsolete, along with the Torah, these Roman Gentile Christians were sowing the first seeds of dissention that would eventually lead to complete restructuring of “the Way” from one Jewish religious stream among several in the late Second Temple period, to a completely separate Gentile religion in the first decades of the common era, totally divorced from its origins and its apostolic Jewish mentors.

And “the Church” hasn’t stopped being disobedient yet. In fact, we’ve compounded the problem by insisting that the only proper response to the Jewish Messiah for a Jew is to abandon the Torah, abandon Judaism, and abandon being a Jew, convert to being a Gentile, and to also thumb their noses at the eternal relationship between God and Israel.

The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.

Exodus 31:16-17 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Thus says the Lord,
Who gives the sun for light by day
And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar;
The Lord of hosts is His name:

“If this fixed order departs
From before Me,” declares the Lord,
“Then the offspring of Israel also will cease
From being a nation before Me forever.”

Thus says the Lord,

“If the heavens above can be measured
And the foundations of the earth searched out below,
Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel
For all that they have done,” declares the Lord

Jeremiah 31:35-37 (NASB)

No amount of exegetical “tweaking” of the Bible can delete God’s promises of an eternal relationship with Israel, the Jewish people. Reading Paul as is done traditionally in Christianity requires a great deal of “retrofitting” of the older texts to somehow make God seem to be saying the exact opposite of what we read in Exodus 31 and Jeremiah 31. Mark Nanos and other New Testament scholars like him are boldly forging ahead into territory that restores the “Judaism” back to the Jewish text of the Bible. Paul is not praising the Gentiles for their “lawlessness” and castigating the believing Jews for their continued “addiction” to the Torah. Quite the opposite.

In this chapter, we see Paul continuing to urge the Gentile believers to cleave to the “obedience of faith,” the standards established by the Council in Jerusalem, for the sake of the Jewish people, particularly those Paul was desperate to have come to faith in Messiah.

Mark NanosI can only hope that books like The Mystery of Romans and ministries such as First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) will eventually, and by the will and grace of God, restore the balance, even as Paul was attempting to restore the balance between the Gentile believers and the Jews in Rome. Paul’s efforts ultimately failed, as I think he suspected they would, but as the time of the Messiah’s return approaches, the Spirit is helping us to get out the message of restoration and renewal as God originally planned. Much has been lost to the believers in Jesus over these last twenty centuries. I believe that the time has come for us to take it back.

I hope to continue with my review of the Nanos book soon.

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3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Romans: Apostolic Decree and the Obedience of Faith”

  1. James, I am neither a pastor, or church leader. I have a great desire to know what God’s Word really says. I have read Nanos and he is very thought provoking. I believe that you would really enjoy a Jewish believer by the name of Eli Lizorkin- Eyzenberg with Hebrew University if you don’t know about him. He has been doing a study in the Gospel of John for several months free to anyone. Here is the link. http://jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical.com/

  2. James: You say “We in the Church are just as disobedient to the binding decrees of those whom Jesus assigned authority to as were the Roman Christians in Paul’s letter.” Can you point out which specific binding decrees are you referring to?

  3. @Levi: Thanks for the link. I’m pretty sure I get periodic emails form that site.

    @Alfredo: If the original apostolic decree we read in Acts 15 was issued by the Council of Apostles, who Jesus gave halakhic authority to make binding decisions in his name and the decision seemed good to the apostles and the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), then by denigrating the Jewish people as we have in the long history of the Church as well as requiring them to give up Torah obedience as a condition for entering the body of Messiah, we are being as disobedience as the Gentiles Paul was addressing in his letter to the Romans.

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