In the third part of this series on Legalism, I would like to continue discussing Chapter 15 of Acts.
In the previous lesson I discussed how some Jews from Judea had begun teaching the new gentile converts that they must “be circumcised and convert to Judaism” in order to have salvation. These men took it upon themselves to try and teach these new converts. They had not been sent forth from the establishment, or base, in Jerusalem. The congregation in Jerusalem, where Peter and James and other elders still resided, was at this point still considered the “council” on matters relating to the Renewed Covenant in Yeshua the Messiah.
This being the case, Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to seek advice and council from James and Peter, and the other elders, as to what to do about the situation that they found themselves in.
The question at hand was really this, “does a gentile have to convert to Pharisaic Judaism in order to have salvation?” Remember, to convert to Pharisaic Judaism, or today Rabbinic Judaism, requires a person to come under the “whole law”; this includes the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is the man-made traditions of the Rabbi's. Circumcision was the first thing that had to be done in order to convert to Judaism, then and now.
After Paul and Barnabas and the other side had disputed the issue for some time, Peter (Kefa) then begins to tell of his experience in the area of gentile conversion. Remember, Peter was the first to go to the gentiles when he went to the house of Cornelius. In verses 10-11 the Apostle Peter sums up nicely by stating that “a yoke should not be put upon them that we ourselves (the Jews) could not bear up under, and that through the grace of Yeshua we shall be saved in the same manner as they.”
The “yoke” here being implied is not the teachings and instructions of the Written Torah but the teachings and instructions of the Oral Torah with its man-made legalistic doctrines. Peter argues that we are all saved by grace and belief in Yeshua for the remission of sins. Then James (verse 13) brings out the fact that the TaNaKh (Old Testament) through the prophets declare that the goyim (gentiles) will come to salvation just like the Jews.
In verses 19-20 the council reaches a decision in the matter. Four things are mentioned that the gentiles are to refrain from: things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood. It is decided that they should not be “burdened” down with the other things while they are turning to God.
A question must be asked, burdened down with what other things? Here we must keep the scriptures in context. Why was the original council called? To see whether or not gentiles must convert to Pharisaic Judaism with circumcision always being the first step. No, gentiles do not have to convert to Pharisaic Judaism to obtain like precious faith. No, gentiles do not have to be circumcised or adhere to the other man-made Pharisaic traditions and doctrines.
Listen! Jews don't even have to abide by these man-made traditions to obtain salvation. However, because this is their heritage-they usually do. Much in the same way that I obeyed the traditions of the denomination that I was raised in. Much like you, if obedient and part of an organization that you choose to be a part of, obey the traditions of the denomination that you are a part of. You see, Jews consider it a privilege to be Jewish with all of their ancestral heritage and traditions. It is part of who they are, but this is not required for a gentile.
Again, we are not speaking about keeping the Written Torah but about keeping the Oral Torah; the traditions and customs of the Jews. This is why the Apostle Paul could say in I Corinthians 7:17-24, “But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches. Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.
Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” (KJV)
Here Paul is affirming that a gentile does not have to convert to Judaism, but neither does a Jew have to give up his Jewishness in order to serve Yeshua. Today and in the past 1500 years or so, Jews have been expected to give up their Jewishness in order to serve Yeshua. The “Gentile” church has tried to do away with all things considered “Jewish” in nature. This is wrong! Yeshua and His disciples were all Jews and Yeshua is coming back as a Jewish King and Jewish Messiah and He will be ruling from a Jewish city, Jerusalem.
Why were only these four things listed as items that the new gentile converts had to observe? There are two opinions. The first one is because they were considered to be part of the Noachide laws that all of mankind were suppose to obey, straight from the beginning.
In some of the earliest manuscripts, “things strangled” is omitted. If this be the true case then the second reason that these would be listed is because these were considered to be the 3 laws, contained within the written Torah, that the Rabbi's taught that a Jew could never break, not even to save his life or the life of another. To refrain from blood is believed to mean “murder”, not the drinking of blood.
In the modern Christian church, of which I have been a product, we always instructed a “new” believer in the basic steps of Christianity or the basic steps to begin their walk with Christ. We then instructed them to find a good church and get connected so that they would learn the Bible and learn how they were to walk out their Christian life. This is what I believe, as do many Bible scholars, that this verse is saying. James was saying in essence, “here is a great starting point that we should give them to get started”.
In verse 21, James gives the conclusion to the matter, “ For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.” (KJV) Here James is affirming that these converts will learn how they are to walk out their new found faith in Yeshua by attending Synagogue every week where the WRITTEN TORAH is going to be read. It should be understood that the WRITTEN TORAH has always, even to this present day, been read in all synagogues on the Sabbath day. Here is how the new converts will learn what the Word of God says and how Yahweh expects them to live. The ORAL TORAH is not read in synagogues, but the WRITTEN TORAH.
In Legalism – Part I, I referred to Galatians 2:11-14. In these scriptures, Paul had a disagreement with Peter over “Judaizing” the Gentile converts. What Paul was saying is that Peter believed as he did, that the new converts did not have to convert to Judaism for salvation, and that Yahweh had accepted them just as He had accepted the Jews. However, Paul accuses Peter of being a hypocrite and acting like “his old self” or the way he would have acted before Yeshua , and treating the gentiles differently when another Jew was around. Peter was in fact being a “two-face” to put it in modern terms. Paul admonishes him to his face. Whether this event took place before or after the Jerusalem council I am not sure, but one thing is certain, Peter acted wrongly and Paul corrects him. Peter knew that Yahweh had accepted gentiles just as he had accepted Jews, but Yahweh accepted them without conversion to Pharisaic Judaism with all of its traditions and customs. That is why Paul uses the term, “Judaize” here in this scripture. Peter was acting like he wanted to bring these converts under “legalism” or “Judaism” in order for them to be treated and accepted the same way as a Jew would be treated (by being bound to the "whole torah" which is both written and oral).
This lesson will probably be quite lengthy but I will finish up and address the last issue. I would ask you to read the following scriptures: Romans 3:20,28, Galatians 2:16, 3:2,5, and 10. Here we find the use of a phrase used by the Apostle Paul that is often mis-understood. It is “works of the law”. Some teach and believe that this phrase refers to our not being obligated to keep the written Torah of Yahweh because we cannot be right with God by the “works of the law”, therefore the law of Moses has been done away with. I would like to place this research before you which I believe explains the phrase used only by Paul in the New Testament.
What are the “works of the law” mentioned by the Apostle Paul? Is it the 10 Commandments or the other instructions and teachings given to Moses? In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul said that a man “is not justified by the works of the law and that by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” What does he mean?
Most Christian Commentators and most traditional Christians will argue that it means the entire Torah of Yahweh given to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls shed some light on this subject. Do some research on the Dead Sea Scrolls if you are unfamiliar with what these are. They were from the first century period.
Within the Dead Sea Scrolls there is contained a scroll entitled, “MMT” which in Hebrew stands for “Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah.” Now while I will not take sufficient time to teach a full lesson on this scroll, I will tell you of its importance to this teaching on “legalism” and its true Biblical meaning.
This phrase, “ Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah” is translated into Greek and then into English as “works of the law”.
In 1976 when the British Bible Society translated the New Testament into modern Hebrew, they translated the Greek “ergon nomou” (works of the law) into Hebrew as “ma'ase Ha-Torah”. The Dead Sea Scroll, “MMT”, and Paul use the same phrase to describe something. Interestingly, this phrase occurs no where else in Rabbinic literature of the first century except here in the MMT and Paul's writings.
So, in short, what is the MMT scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls about? It contains their “halakhah” or their ORAL LAWS by which they govern themselves in their community; the rules, regulations and traditions by which they walk out their lives. These laws were their “amplifications” as to what the WRITTEN TORAH commanded them to obey. IT WAS EQUIVALENT TO THE ORAL TORAH OF THE PHARISEE'S.
These “fences placed around the Written Torah” is what Yeshua and Paul condemned. The “works of the law” are their traditions and customs that were added to God's Word. Paul urges his readers to not be entangled in the “works of the law” (Oral Torah-man's legalistic laws and rituals).
The bottom line is this: there is salvation by no other means than through Yeshua our Lord and Savior. His blood alone atones for our sins. However, we must have “works” with our “faith” in Yeshua. What are the works that we are to live out? Yahweh's “teachings and instructions” (The Written Torah) and not man's teachings and instructions. To abide by Yahweh's teachings and instructions is not legalism, it is obedience, but to abide by man's teachings and instructions is legalism at its best.
The Complete Jewish Bible; Stern, David H; 1998
Jewish New Testament Commentary, Stern, David H; 1992