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Are Christians Followers of the Laws of Judaism?
The Apostles speak
Copyright © 2019 Dorian Scott Cole
Why the laws?
People feel that there have to be law codes to guide people. There are periods when people lack empathy for others, and place their own desires ahead of the well being of others, so they write law codes to guide people's behavior. From the earliest times, people have written law codes.
In the Middle East, over millennium, many countries, kings, and priests developed law codes for both criminal, civil, and religious law. Ancient Sumer was the first, dating after 3500 BCE. Most of these law codes were very nuanced. The Sumer law code may have had some impact on the law in later Assyria. Then King Hammurabi, of the later Babylonian Empire, wrote an extensive law code.
The Greeks wrote their first law code in the 7th Century BCE. Draco wrote it, and it had the same punishment for every crime: death. It was a bit harsh. Not nuanced in any way.
The Hebrew law code was derived from the first five books of the Bible. The Hebrew word means “traverse” or “pass over,” and possibly comes from eber or ivri, both of which have the same root, as the people of Noah's son, Shem. They were later called Israelites after the land of Israel, then later called Jews. Tradition has it that Abraham was called Hebrew because he came from across the river. In the thirteenth century BCE there was the Semitic tribe, habiru.
Scholars aren't certain about when the Hebrew law code was written. Dates are very difficult to pin down. There were judges over the tribes in Israel from around 1382 to 1063 BCE, but the laws supposedly date to Moses. The period is thought to have lasted 300 to 400 years. It began with Moses delivering the Ten Commandments. Like the origin of the name YHWH (Jehovah) and the word Hebrew, the origins of the Laws are a bit murky.
The Jews derived 613 laws from the Hebrew Bible.*1 The first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, were collectively known as “The Law,” or Torah (teaching). These Commandments included 248 things they “should do,” and 365 things that they “should not do.” This included the Ten Commandments written on stone by Moses.
Many of these laws are described as “self-evident,” such as not murdering or stealing. Some are ceremonial laws that commemorate important events in Jewish history. The remainder of the laws had no rationale, but were attributed to God. Punishments were described for breaking each law. Many Jews today do follow these Commandments.
The Hebrew Law underwent massive change in the new “sect” Christianity. The Jews argued that those who followed Christ, even if they weren't Jews, should be subject to the same Law as they were.
Significantly for understanding Jewish views on law, some of these laws they felt it was better to die than to break these Commandments. This is reminiscent of Jesus saying that it was better to pluck out your eye than for it to lead you into sin and damnation. These laws were murder, idolatry, and forbidden sexual relations.
So we start with 613 Commandments (laws), of which only 271 can be practiced today because the others are relevant only to the Temple, which is gone. Another 26 of these are only relevant in the land of Israel. Some apply to only men or women, generally involving ceremonial purity necessary for religious practice. That still leaves a significant number of Commandments that non-Jews would have to follow if they were subject to the law.
“No, no, no, some say.” Non-Jews are only subject to the Ten Commandments. Others say they are only subject to the seven laws of Noah, that preceded Moses and Jewish law, that Jewish scholars found in the Bible.*2 These Noahide laws preceded the covenant (agreement) that God made with the Jews through Moses. They are similar to the Ten Commandments.
Portions of the Laws of Noah were given to the non-Jews in Acts 15*3: avoiding idolatry, fornication, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal. These restrictions were insisted on by the then leaders of the Jerusalem Church, Peter and James. Fornication (sexual intercourse between people not married to each other) and idolatry were similar to the laws the Jews felt it was better to die than to break.
Sexual immorality was associated with unrestrained sexual activity driven by lust and lack of self-restraint, such as having sex with another person's wife, sex with prostitutes, and promiscuity–things that spoiled the person's body and soul. This was about sex outside of a relationship.
So for Christians we go from 613 Laws to ten, to seven, to three. Is that the end of the story? Well, the Apostle Paul spun a long story in his letters.
Paul, the Apostles, and Law for the Gentiles (non-Jews)
The issue over following the Laws given to the Jews rose early. Acts 5 (NIV): 5-11 “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.' The apostles and elders met to consider this question.
“After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: 'Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
The Apostles knew that the Law followed by the Jews would have been an unbearable burden to live with, and would have driven people away. It wasn't like they didn't know right from wrong, the natural laws. The Bible tells repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament, that God has written the law in their hearts and given them the Holy Spirit*5. They really didn't need the law hammered into them. Salvation was theirs by faith.
Paul taught, as written in Romans 14:14: “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.” The primary thing is not to spoil your own conscience, or that of others, which Paul repeatedly alludes to in his letters to churches.
Throughout his ministry this issue arose again and again. Paul patiently explained that The Law simply made people conscious of sin. It was a curse, condemned them, and brought the wrath of God. Following the Law didn't save them.*6
Those who try to follow the Law, hoping this will save them, spit in the eye of Christ. They reject what he offers to go back to being a slave to sin and law.*7
If we're going to insist on being a slave, we instead should be a slave to doing what is right.*8
For some the idea that nothing is forbidden to them, but everything is permissible, led to the inevitable taking advantage and misinterpretation. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5, some in the church were considering it permissible for a son to be having sex with his father's wife. This “permissive attitude” was something Paul had to address in the Corinthian Church. Being free and being permissive are not the same.
Paul said to them, (paraphrasing) you're cheating and doing wrong to each other, then suing each other in court for what you yourselves do. It's better to be wronged and live with it. This was very serious. Jesus only condemned hypocrites during his ministry, and the Corinthians were being hypocritical.
Paul continued, you insist, “I have the right to do anything!” But not everything is beneficial. You still assert, “I have the right to do anything!” But not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.... So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Don't cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God.
Today there are many who are fearful that people will misinterpret the Apostle's teachings about the Law not applying to Christians, and that they will do all kinds of bad things. Some, like the Corinthians, will certainly use that to excuse their behavior. But this is a gross misunderstanding of what the Apostles taught.
I like to say, “How can you love others, but still break a relevant law? You would break the Commandment that Jesus said was the highest commandment.” Paul talked about this in Galatians 5:13-15 (NIV) ”You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh [opposition to the spirit]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul said that following love brings out the best in people. Galations 5: 18 (NIV) “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
Paul stopped short of forbidding things, like the Law does. He said in Acts 15:28-2 (NIV), “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” If these restrictions sound different, they are. They are similar but changed over time.
The question about sex will always come up. People are often driven by sexual lust for others. As a result of uncommitted sexual relations, people experience: regret9, people's hearts get broken, children are born without support, and marriages are wrecked. The impact of sexual relations are far reaching, miles beyond the simple satisfaction of passion of the moment. While we have different needs than marriage had in the year 01 AD, there are still reasons for self-control. 1 Thessalonians 4 (NIV) 3-5 “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust....”
The Apostles were not reserved about what the law was about. It was about awareness of sin, and condemnation. It had the effect of keeping people permanently condemned. No one could live up to it. It drives people away.
Preachers who have focused on delivering messages that focus on law and sin have found the same thing. It drives people away.
The focus of the law was negative. While the Jewish Great Commandment taught love, it was in an environment of negativity and destruction. A person could never feel worthy of God or accepted by God. It led to endless acts of sacrifice to make the person worthy.
Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. The negativity that dragged people down ended. The focus would now be on love. On lifting people up rather than putting them down. About focusing on what was right, not on what was wrong.
There can never be enough laws to guide people. Laws are not well remembered. Even the Apostles couldn't recite the restrictions they put on Christians the same way over the years. For every law, people find ways to subvert it. They pick and choose the laws they think serve their interests, and like the hypocrites Christ condemned, break the ones they don't like while forcing others to obey the ones they do like. The laws are just games to many people. But love (charity, wanting the best for others, treating others well) is not a game.
The grace and forgiveness offered by God to us through Jesus fit right in with Hosea and Jesus saying, "But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" And Jesus said to them, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." The fullness of life comes not being crushed by what we do wrong, but from loving others.
Those who hold themselves responsible to law, not love, refuse the grace of God.
1. 613 Commandments, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/613_commandments and The 613 Commandments (Mitzvot) By Mendy Hecht https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/756399/jewish/The-613-Commandments-Mitzvot.htm
2. Seven Laws of Noah, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Laws_of_Noah
3. Acts 15: (NIV 19-20) "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood."
4. Thessalonians 4 (NIV) 3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God;
5. Romans 2:13-15 New International Version (NIV) For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
6. Romans 2:11-13 New International Version (NIV)11 For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.Law makes us conscious of sin, but doesn't save us – Saved through faith Romans 3:19-21 New International Version (NIV) Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.
Law brings wrath, not salvation: Romans 4:14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
7. Living under the law makes Christ's work nothing: Galations 2:19-21 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!
James 2: 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.
8. Romans 3:30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.Slaves to sin: Romans 3: 12-14 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. Slaves to Righteousness: Romans 6:15-18 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
9. Corinthians 10: 23-32 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.... So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God
10. Sexual Regret - The Psychology of Romantic Remorse, Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham, Psychology Today, Sep 06, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/slightly-blighty/201509/sexual-regret-the-psychology-romantic-remorse