If we are grafted into the good Olive Tree and have become part of Israel, how should we then live? This is a difficult question to answer, because the Bible itself is not always clear in this regard. The question is: What should the way of life be? In other words, should it be the same as for “Judah,” or somehow different? The Scriptures leave open the possibility for those who love the people of God, and who have been grafted into the good Olive Tree, to assume the customs and life style of Judah. According to the Apostles, however, they do not have to. This study is about what they taught the Gentile believers.
The problem already arose when the first Gentiles came to Faith through the preaching of Peter and Paul. The Apostles held counsel in Jerusalem and discussed whether these “born again” Gentiles, who had also received the Holy Spirit, would be required to keep all the laws of Moses. After a long session they concluded that they shouldn’t burden the new Gentile believers with circumcision and the other laws of Moses. After hearing Peter draw this conclusion, all the Apostles who were present agreed that:
“God, who knows the hearts, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit even as He did to us. And He put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you tempt God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples, a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, according to which manner they also believed ….. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which, if you keep yourselves, you shall do well,” Acts 15:8-11 & 28-29.
It needs to be said that, while the Jewish Apostles and elders informed the Gentiles of this decision, they themselves still kept the laws of Moses. This is clearly described in the book of Acts, when Paul returned to Jerusalem from one of his mission journeys.
“And we being in Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. And on the next day Paul went with us to James. And all the elders were present. And having greeted them, he related one by one what things God had done among the nations by his ministry. And hearing, they glorified the Lord, and said to him, you see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous of the Law. And they are informed concerning you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the nations to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, nor to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? At all events a multitude will come together, for they will hear that you have come. And as to the nations who believe, we joined in writing, judging them to observe no such things, except only that they keep themselves from both idol sacrifice, and blood, and a thing strangled, and from fornication,” Acts 21:17-22 & 25.
It is clear, from this passage, that Jewish leaders and elders of the congregation in Jerusalem still tried to keep the law, although they did not burden the Gentiles with it. They knew keeping the law could not save them, because salvation only comes through Jesus! But they were convinced they should live as Jews. This is what Paul also explained to the congregation in Corinth.
“Was any called having been circumcised? Do not be uncircumcised. Was anyone called in uncircumcision? Do not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God,” 1 Corinthians 7:18-19.
Clearly, then, the way of life for Gentile believers is different from Jews who have been called to follow the Lord. We should therefore not apply Paul’s words to the Jewish believers. It is perhaps not entirely accurate, when the words of Paul, which were addressed to the Gentile congregations, are indiscriminately applied to Jewish believers. Certainly not when we realize that regarding their lifestyle, in the days of the early Church, the Jewish believers held to the Law of Moses and some were, as previously mentioned, even zealots for the law, Acts 21:20.
This is consistent with the words of Jesus about observance of the Law, as written in the book of Matthew:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven,” Matthew 5:17-19.
There is perhaps no greater expression found in the New Testament regarding the non-dissolution of the Law of Moses for those who are “in the Kingdom of Heaven.” It has been claimed that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the first place for Jewish believers and that this is the reason for the emphasis on keeping the Law. At the same time it can be said that the “Beatitudes” were initially directed to Jesus’ own followers. Nevertheless, these words place a strong emphasis on complying with the Law of Moses. Perhaps the emphasis in the Beatitudes is strongest in Matthew 5, 6 and 7. In the following examples, too, Jesus indicates how the “observance of the Law” should be manifested in the lives of His disciples: it is not sufficient to keep the Law outwardly, He taught.
A much greater manifestation will be seen when the Law is kept from the heart. Therefore, cursing your neighbours is equivalent of manslaughter and looking lustfully at another woman when you are already married is equivalent to committing adultery. We should be prepared, if someone asks us to go one mile with him, to go a second mile also.
The summary of the Beatitudes is:
“Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets,” Matthew 7:12.
This brings us to the question of the New Testament interpretation of the Law, as put into the hearts of the faithful believers by the Holy Spirit, 2 Corinthians 3:3. It is a new Law, which according to Paul leads to a more excellent way, 1 Corinthians 12:31. It is a Law pronounced to us by the Lord Himself, which has been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament:
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more,” Jeremiah 31:31-34.
The characteristic of the Law of the Old Covenant was that the people needed to remind each other of it and explain it to each other. Moses had to appoint 70 able men to help him fulfil the task given to him. The people needed to be told what to do, for they were stubborn and had a heart of stone. “Thou shalt and thou shalt not!” All these prohibitions were, where necessary, interpreted by wise men or, as in Jesus’ time, by the scribes and Pharisees, who sat on the seat of Moses.
With the new covenant came a new commandment as well, a commandment not given to us by others or taught by outsiders, but a commandment that God Himself planted in our inner man by His Spirit. It is a law of love, as Jesus expressed Himself:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” John 13:34-35.
The largest part of the New Testament deals with this issue – the letters of Paul and of the Apostle John especially giving wonderful comments on this. For example, in his letter to the Romans Paul states the following:
“Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilment of the law,” Romans 13:8-10.
It is this Law of love, which the Lord wrote in our hearts by His Spirit and by that same Spirit, whose fruit is love, we all will be led. When one of the Scribes asked Jesus: “Master, which is the great commandment in the Law, Jesus answered him:
“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets,” Matthew 22:36-40.
And John, of whom we know he was loved by our Lord and whom lay, “at the bosom” of Jesus, wrote:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us,” 1 John 4:7,12.
Actually this commandment of love is not a “new” commandment at all, for it can already be derived from the Law and the Prophets. This is what John wrote in his letter. What is new is that Jesus and the Apostles are emphasizing it as the root of the gospel. Love has to come from within and needs to be cultivated by the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is a lifestyle which overflows with love as intended by the Father. God wants us to live this way through the help of His Holy Spirit. In a way we are no longer in need of an external teacher, just like Jeremiah prophesied in the days of old, for the Lord will lead us unto all truth by His Spirit. In the same way John writes:
“Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him…. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him,” 1 John 2:7-10, 27.
Paul writes in the same manner concerning this:
“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. This I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh…. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law….. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law,” Galatians 5:13-14,16,18, & 22-23.
“For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter,” Romans 7:5-6.
“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” Romans 8:3-4.
(See also Colossians 2:11-23 and Romans 2:25-29)
“Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love,” Galatians 5:2-6.
What is striking is how consistently these passages reveal the same idea. It is the description of the reality of the New Covenant wrought by God in Christ made with both Jew and gentile, based on faith in His Son through the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives. It starts in our lives with spiritual circumcision which we have received by God in baptism, whereby our hearts are made sensitive and accountable to the inner workings of His Spirit in us!
Before we continue, I would like to return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17-20, which we quoted earlier. When the Lord talks about the fulfilment of the Law, even in the most minor details, we should realize that in our current day no Jew is able to completely fulfil the Law of Moses, simply because a number of necessary “ingredients” are no longer available. In Judaism today blood sacrifices cannot be made. There is no holy temple in Jerusalem anymore. There is no high priest from the house of Aaron. There are commandments which even orthodox Jews cannot fulfil. In modern Judaism food laws fulfil a very important role. Jesus spoke very clearly concerning the fact that a man is unclean, by that which comes out of his mouth, and not by what goes into his mouth. Paul strongly emphasizes, what Jesus already taught. Listen to what Jesus had to say concerning this matter:
“There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him; those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”…. So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” And He said, “What comes out of a man that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man,” Mark 7:15-16,18-23.
The same lesson appears to be woven into the vision Peter gets at the tanner’s house in the town of Joppa. Of course we realize that this vision primarily concerns the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant, which was until then an exclusive covenant between the God of Israel and His Jewish people. For the record, it must be mentioned that although Peter was already filled with the Holy Spirit, and one of the pillars of the congregation in Jerusalem, he would not ever consider the idea of consuming unclean animals himself. This, again, is a clear example that the Jewish believers still lived according to the law!
“When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat. ‘But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth. ‘But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common. ‘Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven,” Acts 11:6-10.
Also, on the keeping of the Sabbath, despite His words that not one jot or tittle would be passing from the Law, Jesus had a less legalistic attitude than the Pharisees of His time. This is made clear in the story about the plucking of the ears of corn:
“And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice, ‘you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath,” Matthew 12:2-8.
Despite these clear teachings, the two different ways of life led to arguments between the Messianic Jews and the believing Gentiles at the time of the development of the first congregations. A well known example is the dispute in Antioch between Paul and Peter regarding the eating at one (non kosher) table with believing Gentiles. Paul wrote the following passage about this incident:
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do youcompel Gentiles to live as Jews?” Galatians 2:11-14.
Here we perceive the enormous tension these two seemingly opposite ways of life brought into the first churches, especially where Messianic Jews and Gentiles came together. The believing Gentile was not obliged to live according the Law of Moses, though the Jewish believer felt the urgency to do so. The issue appears to undermine the main principle on which the church of Jesus Christ was built, namely the unity of His body. The gospel is extremely clear about the idea, that there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. How will we be able to overcome this apparent insurmountable barrier, to be in unity as a Jew and as a Gentile, both grafted into the same tree, both members of the same people and that same flock of the Lord? Perhaps Paul will give us the answer, when he writes:
“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law, not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ, that I might win those who are without law,” 1 Corinthians 9:19-21.
“For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” God already said during the days of Hosea. As the Son of God, our Lord Jesus quoted this passage and said that fulfilling the Law and the prophets is this mercy, this walk in love. “One commandment I give to you, that you will love one another.”
It is apparent from Paul’s verses that he adopted this commandment and this way of life from Jesus in his teaching. The New Covenant – in which the God of heaven and earth, the God of Israel, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, sought to engage both Jew and Gentile, all of us who were called to eternal life – is all about love and a loving lifestyle. External things will eventually fade away, because it is all about our heart relationship with God. There needs to be a circumcision of the heart through baptism in Christ, for sin needs to be expelled from the heart of men. Our heart is the place, where through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ the fruits of love, peace, joy, goodness, meekness and longsuffering must reign. This is emphasized in the message of Jesus and by the Apostles in the New Testament. It is important what happens to the inner man, not just in outward appearance. In the Beatitudes Jesus describes a righteousness that is so much more; deeper than we can ever imagine, and without it we will never be able to inherit the Kingdom of God. In all the New Testament writings there is an emphasis on what happens in the inner man and how in love, inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can live for Him and our neighbours.
Let us now return to the question of how our behaviour and way of life, as Gentile believers, should actually be determined. As demonstrated above, the writers of the New Testament unanimously agreed that the believers from the nations do not have to submit their lifestyle to all the laws of Moses. They were given great freedom, though, on this point. When they felt to do or not to do certain things, they were given the freedom to act according to their own conscience and understanding in order to establish their lifestyle or behaviour.
Now we too, because it is all about love, should despise no man, who because of his faith or conscience is persuaded to stick to a certain way of life. Paul said some clear things about this:
“For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand…. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks…… So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died,” Romans 14:1-6,12-15.
Again, Paul brings us back to love as the all embracing and dominating commandment for all the children of the New Covenant. Walk in love – that is what the gospel is all about! Do not use the freedom you received from the Lord to satisfy the lusts of your own flesh, but serve each other in this freedom. The rest is irrelevant. But Jews as well as Christians have elevated the less relevant issues to the main issues. Paul sheds more light on this in his letter to the Colossians:
“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving….. In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead,” Colossians 2:6-7,11-12.
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God,” Romans 2:28, 29.
~ Jan Willem van der Hoeven, Director
International Christian Zionist Center
Newsletter of December 1, 2015.
Republished with the kind permission of Author Jan Willem van der Hoeven, Director of International Christian Zionist Center.
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