Many believers in and outside Israel also as result of their love for the Jewish people and Israel, are in a quandary as to how much of the law they should keep. There is in some circles a great and constant harping on the need to go back to “our Jewish roots” without sometimes the clear defining of what is meant by that. Do we go back to keep all the Mosaic laws of the Old Covenant, or as some uphold and teach do we also have to take the teachings and tradition seriously which later developed in Judaism and were laid down in the Talmud and Mishna? Which Jewish roots are being meant? – just the Old Covenant biblical roots or the later developed added rules and traditions?
Is there a difference in relation to this question between Jewish and Gentile believers or does the New Testament teach one law for all (believers)?
These are some of the questions we desperately need answers for – answers, which will be accurate and true to the clear teaching of the word of God and His Holy Spirit.
First of all, especially in the writings of the Acts of the Apostles, there seems to be a difference between what was expected in regard to the lifestyle of the Gentile believers as to the lifestyle the Jewish believers themselves believed to be committed to.
We find this in different passages, it is especially clear in the Acts where the apostles and elders are reported to have had a special meeting about this issue whether the Gentiles (not only Jewish believers!) were also required to keep the whole law of Moses. Their verdict after hours of intense discussion is written for every one to read:
“The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law” – to whom we gave no such commandment – it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell”. Acts 15:23-26,28-29.
At the time that the Jewish elders and apostles sent this Holy Spirit inspired letter to the Gentile churches and believers it should be noted that they themselves still kept the Mosaic law as we can read in the same book of Acts at the episode of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem described in Acts 21:17-25:
“And when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; “but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. “What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come. “Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow.” Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the law. “But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
Thus the early Jewish believers in their lifestyle were faithful, even zealous for the Law of Moses although they allowed the Gentiles a freedom from its restrictions. Paul reiterates this dual early apostolic approach in his letter to the Corinthians.
“But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. Was anyone called while circumcised. Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. LET EACH ONE REMAIN IN THE SAME CALLING IN WHICH HE WAS CALLED” 1 Corinthians 7:17-20.
In Matthew 5:17-20, is believed to have be written especially with the Hebrew people in mind, Jesus Himself reiterates this faithfulness to the laws of Moses when during His sermon on the Mount He says:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 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. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Yet there are also other passages written down from his lips, as for instance the words of Mark:
“Hear Me, everyone, and understand: 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 and to his disciples: 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, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:14,15, 18-23).
It is in this same passage that Jesus makes a clear distinction between the commandment of God, His Father and the tradition of men. See Mark 11:6-13. In this passage the Lord says:
“This people honours Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men. All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition Mark 7:6-9.
So already in New Testament days there was a dangerous trend among some of the religious teachers, or Pharisees of that time, to overemphasize the importance of traditions of different sages or men over the clear teachings and commandments of God written down in the Tenakh. This is an important point because today Orthodox Judaism is not only based on the written law of God but equally also on the oral law of God. This teaching has of course opened up a whole gamut of interpretations; traditions and teaching that have later been added and thus found their way in the “Sulchan Aruch,” the embodiment of what today is expected from a Jew who wants to adhere to an orthodox lifestyle.
Some believers today use the words of Jesus in Matthew 23 as a proof that believers, especially in the land, are required by these words also to keep the oral law and thus the teachings and traditions of men gradually crept in. Messianic synagogues are split over this issue, some feel they need to be faithful as much as possible to the clear teachings of the Tenakh, others feel this faithfulness to the later developed oral traditions, using the words of Jesus for this point of view:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, (in Moses’ seat) that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.” Matthew 23:2-3.
Because of Jesus emphasis on the words in Moses’ seat, one would say that together with Jesus own stern words about the later crept in traditions, which He called “teachings of men” in contrast with the words of Moses, which He called the Word of God, it can be safely argued that these words about observing and doing what the Pharisees taught only referred to the law of Moses. So it would certainly be a weak basis for deducing from this verse more than that.
Thus we have seen in the New Testament period there seemed to have been a dualism regarding the keeping of the law in relation to Jewish believers and Gentile believers. The teachings of Paul, sometimes used by some Hebrew believers as indicative that they also do not need to keep the whole Mosaic law any more, were mainly or exclusively letters written – as he was an apostle to the Gentiles – to Gentile audiences, in Rome, in Corinth, in Philippi, etc.
So one could argue that the aforementioned especially in the light of the recorded practice of the early Jewish believers in Acts, can not be used to prove that Messianic Jews can too easily take these words of Paul, written mainly to Gentile believers as proof that they can now also live outside the precincts of the Law, unless we can prove through a wider use of scripture and argument that there nevertheless is scriptural evidence to the contrary, which would in certain cases give even Jewish believers this freedom so extolled by Paul in his epistles.
Besides Jesus words about unclean foods which He stated are not able to defile a man from within, thus already belittling in a way the famous kosher laws that today take such an important place in Judaism, there are other words in scripture that need to be addressed and looked at.
Thus far we have been speaking about the practices of the early Jewish believers as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, which have all taken place before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Titus in 70AD. This is a very important point because it was only after the destruction of the Jewish Temple that Judaism had to be redefined by the religious leaders of that day (which was done in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud) because some of the requirements of the law of Moses, without a Temple, High Priest and the sacrifices, became impossible to fulfill. That was not yet the case in the New Testament period.
Without the Temple and its sacrifices even, for instance, Yom Kippur would not be kept any more in the way that God had originally described it through Moses. Thus the last truly orthodox Jewish lifestyle according to the laws of Moses became extinct after 70 AD, leaving no one after that who truly kept the whole law, as it was not possible without a Temple, High priest and sacrifice!
So if the Jewish religious leaders of that day after the destruction of the Temple in AD70, felt the need and necessity to redefine Judaism, could it be that Jewish believers in the light of these developments also perceived a need to redefine what God expected from them? And is there in the Scriptures already a basis laid for such re-assessment for Jewish believers after 70AD?
Already the Apostle Paul seems to reflect a certain ambiguity in relation to keeping the law 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 ….. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some…” 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.
In all respect: Jesus’ own words sometimes seem to reveal the same kind of ambiguity. The words about unclean foods already quoted from the Gospels of Mark are only one point in case. But there are other words such as His teaching on the Sabbath.
“Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: “how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him? And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath” Mark 2:23-28.
Already in His sermon on the Mount He makes two points about the Law that: “he did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill” Matthew 5:17 – and that if the righteousness of those who claim to follow Him would not exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees, they would by no means enter the kingdom of heaven – see Matthew 5:20.
To further explain His point He went into detail how each of the laws of Moses – “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery,“ etc. were to be taken in a much deeper way where it would touch the heart of each believer. But the greatest emphasis is relating to the Law regarding love – love towards God and love towards one’s neighbor. That to Him was the essence and fulfillment of the Law. Everything was to be subjected to that, whether Sabbath laws or other regulations. As he said especially as related by John:
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, see also John 15:12-14.
In Mark 12:28-34 Jesus said:
“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all? Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all you soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. “And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.'” So the scribe said to Him:”Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. “And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” So when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared question Him.”
All these passages are reiterated by Paul the Apostle in his writings, always stressing in many ways – as the Lord taught – that love is the fulfilment of the law for those who want to walk in the Spirit as disciples of the New Covenant!
“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 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.
In his first epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul writes his new famous words on the importance of love, charity. He introduces these words with:
“And yet I show you a more excellent way … Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three but the greatest of these is love” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a,13.
As he repeats to the Galatians:
“For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. Against such there is no law Galatians 5:13,22-23.
Thus the most important law of the New Covenant as expressed by Jesus Himself and His apostles is love. It is the one commandment that sums up them all. Any detraction from this by overemphasizing other – though important laws and regulations – will be endangering the very centrality of this overall important law: “thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself” and of course first and foremost: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart”
After the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of most of the Jews out from their God given land – the need was felt by the religious leaders of their day for a redefinition of Judaism. Without a Temple, without the sacrifices, without the High Priest, the three times a year “going up” to celebrate the three major biblical Feasts of the Lord, the need was felt for a codification of what was expected from a Jew in regard to the Torah at least those parts which could still be kept.
This codification took years to accomplish. First the Mishna, then the Gemerra were finally brought together in the Talmud – the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. Out of the Talmud later the “Sulchan Aruch” was formed, a handbook that teaches every observant Jew what day by day is expected from him to be a faithful religious Jew. But it is a redefinition of Judaism with a lot of additions and regulations, which are not found in the original writings of the Tenakh.
Therefore there should biblically and theologically speaking, not be too much tumult when Paul and others in the New Testament, especially after 70AD are willing to stress or lay a foundation for a redefinition of their own, especially as this new covenant is already prophesied by Jeremiah in the Tenakh when he says:
“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 bring 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.
This indeed is a remarkable passage for it tells of a time that God will make a new covenant with His people – not according to the covenant He made with their fathers in Sinai – but a new covenant where He would write His law in their minds and on their hearts. In other words certainly a redefinition of the old covenant as announced by God Himself!
So the question arises what is this new covenant – redefined. The Talmud which basically adds laws and regulations, puts a fence around the Torah – or is it the New Covenant law emphasized and practiced by Jesus and the Apostles – the law that God is willing by His Spirit to write upon the hearts of those who through repentance, faith and baptism are willing to be circumcised in their hearts?
This is a very, very important question – certainly in the light of this wonderful announcement of the new covenant by God through the prophet Jeremiah. Is the Talmud the new promised basis for the right relationship with God after 70AD, or is the New Testament the basis for this new right relationship with God?
Looking to the description of the character of this New Covenant, Jeremiah prophesied that no more shall every man teach his neighbor or his brother – one does not think that the way of the Talmud or “halacha” (Halakha) fits this description with its strong emphasis on the opposite. According to Jeremiah every man will know from his own heart and walk with the Lord in a way that is pleasing to the Lord but the opposite has to be taught by others, by the rabbis and the sages. He cannot and may not come to the judgement himself as to how to live to please God. The New Testament however describes this personal responsibility and reality in the same way as Jeremiah describes it in this passage when the Apostle John, himself a Jew, describing this New Covenant relationship with God says:
“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, (again this emphasizes love!) is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him” 1 John 2:8-10.
“But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things … the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you need not that anyone teach you (see Jeremiah 31); 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 2:20,27.
This is the same idea that Paul brings forth in his writings that this new law – the one inspired by the Spirit of God upon our minds and within our hearts supersedes the old law of Sinai (Moses)
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit … 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 …. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if you by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” Romans 8:1,4.
And in Galatians Paul writes
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who become circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 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 … if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law” Galatians 5:1-3, 5-6,18.
This then is to be the new covenant law and way – very consistently taught in the New Testament by the Jewish Apostles and already prophesied by Jeremiah hundreds of years before the appearance of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. For as Moses in the name of God initiated the Old Covenant of Sinai, Jesus, initiated the New Covenant of Moriah or Zion – the covenant where God would not so much on tables of stone but on the hearts of individual men and women by inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit write His law. It is a time also prophesied by Joel that God would pour out His Spirit upon every one, upon all flesh.
“And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions; And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” Joel 2:28-29.
“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: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR AS YOUSELF” Galatians 5:13-14.
“And Jesus said, ‘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.
For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” 1 John 3:11,18, 23.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God: and EVERYONE WHO LOVES is born of God and knows God” 1 John 4:7.
“And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him” 1 John 4:16.
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God us love his brother also” 1 John 4:20-21.
“‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. ‘And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
“And Paul writes: ‘…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.
“And yet I show you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” 1 Corinthians 12:31, 13:1-13.
“Owe now 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 covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law <Romans 13:8-10.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 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. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that is was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment. But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled your brother, and then come and offer your gift” Matthew 5:17-24.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heave; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” Matthew 5:43-48.
Jan Willem van der Hoeven, Director
International Christian Zionist Center
Republished with the kind permission of Author Jan Willem van der Hoeven, Director of International Christian Zionist Center.
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