IF GENTILES DIDN'T HAVE TO BECOME JEWS in the early church to enjoy a saving relationship with God, does that mean they weren't expected to keep the laws given at Sinai? If the early church did expect them to shoulder the law of Moses, would they not have faced enormous opposition from family and friends? Such difficulties would have elicited a huge outpouring of pastoral letters dealing with the mountain of problems. Yet Scripture is silent about such problems. Why?
This chapter will show that God not only expected strangers living in Israel before Jesus' time to keep His law but expected Gentiles in the early church to do the same. Logically, the same requirement extends to believers today.
The issue at stake is extremely serious, and all who deal with it should do so in fear and trembling. If God intends those who live by faith to also live by law, then to teach against law is to invite a stiff sentence in God's judgment. The reverse is equally true.
Was law given only for Israel?
Many argue that God gave the law to ancient, old covenant Israel alone. Hence, it is not relevant for non-Israelite Christians. However, resident aliens in Israel were expected to observe biblical law, including so-called ceremonial rites. (For a brief discussion on ceremonial law, see Jesus and ceremonial law.) That fact amply proves the law was not given solely for Israel. Isaiah dangled a dazzling reward before the eyes of non-resident foreigners for keeping the Sabbath holy. Foreigners who wished to sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple enjoyed perpetual permission to do so.
Jesus said that the law was "for man" (Mark 2:27); he did not say it was "for Israel". We can confidently conclude that the law was given for the enlightenment of ancient Romans and modern Chinese as much as for Israel.
Is law done away?
All right, Scripture teaches that the law is for the benefit of all mankind, not just for Israel. But didn't its validity cease with the onset of the Christian dispensation? Not if the example set by the early church is anything to go by. Eighteenth-century historian, Edward Gibbon, notes that the original church taught that, since God had never repealed it, the law remained valid for all believers. He lists three specific arguments for the position (1963, p. 223):
the repeal of divine law would be as "clear and solemn" as its giving; nothing of the like ever happened;
the Old Testament continually describes the law as enduring, and ever good; if God intended to repeal it, it would have been presented as provisional in nature;
Jesus authorized the law by his own observance of it; if its end was in sight, he would have said so.
All three arguments remain bulletproof in spite of their age. Gibbon himself fails to be persuaded by the cogent logic and goes on to argue against the church's position, supporting his own anti-law stance by appeal to "the industry of our learned divines" which, he says, "has abundantly explained the ambiguous language of the Old Testament, and the ambiguous conduct of the apostolic teachers" (p. 224).
According to the oft-recited story, the church was freed from the fetters of Old Testament law when the sheer number of law-rejecting Gentile converts overwhelmed the law-keeping Christians whom Moses had led into bondage. The last act occurred in the middle of the second century, when a bishop named Marcus, skilled in rhetoric, persuaded the remnant of the stubborn law-keepers to smash the tablets of stone. Few question the logic of the idea that the primitive church had got it so wrong or of the notion that later bishops had authority to repeal divine law.
Over the centuries Catholicism implemented a whole raft of observances of its own devising which, if adhered to faithfully, would supposedly clip years off time spent in purgatory and ensure a swift ascension to heaven. The Protestant Reformation rightly reacted against such quick fixes, but in a classic case of reform going wrong, it failed to restore the faith once delivered and, instead, like the Pied Piper, led many followers into the swirling currents of the Liberty River where they have trodden water ever since.
Shortly we will consider the specific matter of law-keeping by non-Jews in the early church. But first, let's peep inside the anti-law brigade's armory and examine its specialty weapons.
1. Faith and law
First rod off the rack is the faith case. Many believe that law-keeping and living by faith are mutually antagonistic. James Dunn thinks that to live life "in Christ" and "in accordance with law" cannot be done. "To begin with the Spirit and through faith rules out not just justification by works of the law, but life lived by law" (1990, p. 159).
Scripture disagrees. That it teaches both faith and obedience for those who seek shelter under God's wings of grace is too provable to mess with. James makes it as plain as can be:
But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works (2:18).
Those who live by faith will show evidence of that faith. What could be simpler to grasp? Humble subjection to God's revealed way of life demonstrates faith! Abraham, the father of those who live by faith (Gen. 15:6), kept God's laws hundreds of years before they were codified at Sinai (Gen. 26:5).
Look at 1 Corinthians 7:19, Galatians 5:6 and Galatians 6:15. Note the parallelism showing that dynamic faith and new life in Christ are virtually synonymous with obedience to law.
Paul asked, "Do we then make void the law through faith?" His response was swift and unambiguous: "Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31).
2. Grace and law
Big Bertha in the armory takes the form of the supposed law-grace antithesis. Billions of words have been written to show that, since we are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8), law has no place. Let's understand. Paul was not turning virgin soil when he enunciated his grace teaching; his thinking was solidly grounded in Old Testament doctrine. The Hebrew root word for "grace" is "hen". Its basic meaning is that of "undeserved favor", and is used in a general sense to describe any good thing God does for people (Gen. 39:21, Job 33:24). Translators have made life difficult for us by inconsistently rendering it into English. Sometimes they translate the noun as "favor" (Gen. 18:3) and at other times as "grace" (Gen. 6:8). They often mistranslate the verbal form as "be merciful" (e.g. Ps. 41:4) rather than as "give grace" or "show favor". As a result, Old Testament teaching on grace can be easily missed.
Shocking to the sensibilities of much modern theology, the law itself was given as a manifestation of God's grace (Ps. 119:29). As if that weren't nettlesome enough, Proverbs 3:1, 21-22 effectively defuses Big Bertha:
My son, do not forget my law, but let your heart keep my commands. My son, let them not depart from your eyes — keep sound wisdom and discretion; so they will be life to your soul and grace to your neck.
"Grace to one's neck", in the image of a beautiful ornament, refers to the favor the submissive will find from God. He who keeps God's commands will find grace. In Psalm 84:11 the receiving of grace is contingent upon "walking uprightly". By the same token, as a kind of presentiment of Paul's assurance that God will only justify law-keepers (Rom. 2:13), David prayed that God would not show grace "to any wicked transgressors" (Ps. 59:5).
The Old Testament teaches that every benefit man enjoys is a result of God's grace. Of critical importance, hen is also used in passages that speak of God's saving favor (Ps. 102:13). Nobody enters the race of salvation except God, in His grace, recruits him. Paul undoubtedly had this Old Testament foundational teaching in mind when he spoke of God's saving grace. One passage surely lay at the very heart of his thinking about grace:
Then He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious." (Ex. 33:19).
God administers grace based entirely on His own will, not upon a person's past. He will bring under the blood of Jesus Christ anybody He chooses. He chooses some who have been obedient to the law all their lives and some who have a positively pagan, idolatrous past. Paul quotes this passage at the start of a famous section in Romans dealing with God's sovereign right to induct into Abraham's spiritual seed (Rom. 9:15) good and bad Israelites and good and bad Gentiles. Now consider Romans 3:21-24:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Jews, raised on the law, are inherently just as sinful as lawless Gentiles. Both can take up the mantle of salvation only when God wills to show them grace by granting them faith. Both must recognize their sinfulness compared with the infinite perfection of God, and their desperate need for Christ's atonement. Both must recognize that, spiritually, they are blind, deaf, and dumb beggars. The law-abiding Jew must recognize that he has to go back to "Go" without collecting any reward on the way (John 3:3).
The essence of biblical grace is the elective will of God to grant favor to whomever He wants whenever He wants. Some have distorted elective grace into a religious slogan — "no strings attached" — which means dynamic subjection to God's revealed will is out. What a disaster!
3. New covenant and law
If the law-grace antithesis served as antinomianism's Big Bertha, new covenant theory is its latest, hi-tech, sneaky weapon. To switch the metaphor, like lawless towns springing up around frontier railway sidings, wild Dogma City has grown up around the new covenant. The guiding philosophy behind the design of the town plan goes like this. Law was given to Israel as part of the old covenant. The old covenant is dead, having been replaced by the new covenant. Law has been replaced by the Holy Spirit, or love, or the new life in Christ, or grace and truth. Luther drew the first line on the blueprint by creating an artificial contrast between "law" and "gospel".
The biblical teaching on the true connection between new covenant and law rears its beautiful head in the straightforward prophecy of the new covenant found in Jeremiah 31:31-33:
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. 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.
Could anything be plainer? The new covenant involves imprinting God's law in the innermost part of the soul. The prophet Ezekiel foresees a new covenant of peace being made between God and Israel (Ezek. 37:26), during which era Israelites will "walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them" (vs. 24). They will do this because, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you" (36:26). The New Testament never contradicts this teaching. The popular notion that God's solution to sin is to scrap the law that helps define sin is patently silly.
Anti-law theory often plays some spectacularly misleading word games with these prophetic promises. Its adherents sound as if they accept them at face value:
In [Jeremiah 31] there is no substantial difference in content between the law which Israel failed to keep under the old covenant and the law which God undertakes hereafter to place within his people, writing it "upon their hearts". The will of God had not changed; but whereas formerly it was recorded on tablets of stone it was now engraved on human hearts, and inward compulsion accomplished what external compulsion could not (Bruce 1977, p. 200).
The author sounds as if he sees the new covenant succeeding in internalizing in human minds those same laws given to Israel on stone. (Which is exactly what Jeremiah meant.) Further probing reveals his actual interpretation — law is dead. Bruce argues that since the laws are now "internal", any "external" set of standards is unnecessary. Word games, word games, word games.
Jesus said that through the new covenant sin would be atoned for (Matt. 26:28); he did not say that the law would be repealed. Paul would have agreed.
Gentile Christians and law
We need to know for sure if Gentile converts in the early church were expected to keep Old Testament law. As far as this author is concerned, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the perpetual validity of Old Testament law as a vital guide to life for all who love their Savior. Sinai is not where the law was born but the context in which it was recorded in the Word of God. (After all, it had to be written down in some context at some moment in history.)
God is the same throughout time. His requirements for believers of all nationalities have remained stable from Abel to you. When the first recorded New-Testament-era Gentile conversion occurred, Peter declared,
In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him (Acts 10:34-35).
To be accepted of God even Gentiles must "work righteousness". What does that mean? Oesterly and Robinson analyzed the use of the term "do righteousness" in the Old Testament and concluded that it means to, "Do the righteousness of the Law" (1930, p. 321). Did Peter use the term differently?
Evidence that Gentile Christians were expected to observe Old Testament precepts as the way of life needs to be taken seriously. Consider some points:
The apostle who is hailed as the hero of freedom from law penned the following words to a primarily Gentile congregation or congregations:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. "Honor your father and mother," which is the first commandment with promise (Eph. 6:1-2).
Was Paul a hypocrite? Did he preach the end of Old Testament law to some and encourage its observance on the part of others — children, no less? Far be it from him.
The book of Corinthians was written to a congregation heavily weighted in favor of Gentiles. To it, Paul said,
Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters (1 Cor. 7:19).
Being a Jew or not being a Jew is irrelevant. But law-keeping is critical.
Paul instructed the same congregation to practice an Old Testament precept that many would consider ceremonial in nature:
Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8).
The feast, or holy day, being referred to is that known in the Old Testament as the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:6). Gentiles in Corinth observed it.
At the Jerusalem Council, where obligations on Gentiles were discussed, James said something of major interest to us here:
For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).
In essence, he was directing Gentiles to hear Moses read on the Sabbath to help them know how they ought to live.
These instances sufficiently demonstrate that Gentile converts kept God's law. Specific commands such as, "Gentiles, you must keep the law" are missing for a simple reason — such obligation was taken for granted. Many scholars would argue precisely the opposite — that astute Gentiles knew they were under no obligation to keep laws given to Israel under the old covenant. For instance, Colwell (1964, p. 104) says,
To the Gentile Christians of the first few centuries the food laws of the Pentateuch were superfluous if taken in their natural meaning.
Presumably the "natural meaning" is that these laws were somehow connected with purification laws that only applied to tabernacle worship. That assumption doesn't stand up under scrutiny. Further, Romans 2:14 and 27 provide powerful evidence that believing Gentiles are partly judged by their response to the law:
… for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these… are a law to themselves. And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?
The first clause would better be rendered, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law by birth, do the things…". The exemplary behavior of Gentiles who shouldered biblical law as a result of personal decision ("law unto themselves") showed up those who, born as Jews (Jews "by nature") and raised involuntarily "with the written code", broke the law. The law continues to serve as a yardstick in judgment (Luke 16:31) for both Jews and Greeks.
But would not Gentile converts have found it extremely difficult to craft their lives in accordance with biblical law? If we extrapolate backwards from modern experience we would expect that non-Jews who sought to observe biblical ways would have had a terrible time of it, experiencing considerable opposition from relatives and peers. Some argue that the lack of exhortation to Gentile converts to stay the course in spite of harassment proves that they were under no obligation towards law.
Arguments from silence, though helpful, can prove quite misleading. In this case, the silence fits equally well with the scenario proposed in this publication — Gentile believers in Jesus, who sought to follow His example of subjection to God's revealed will, experienced few difficulties at the hands of their countrymen for the simple reason that everybody was doing it. Untold thousands of Gentiles in the first century were following biblical mores. And the Roman authorities approved. Some scholars, seeing the great favor that Jews experienced during the first century, believe that an amazing prophecy was in process of fulfillment:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: "In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you' " (Zech. 8:23).
Paul implies that Jews were regarded as mankind's accepted teachers at that time (Rom. 2:17-21). Non-Jews of both low and high station had great respect for Jewish ways. In March, 37 AD, Vitellius, Roman Governor of Syria, traveled to Jerusalem to attend Old Testament, spring holy day celebrations. Can you imagine any Western leader doing that today? So, in short, silence supports the assertion that Gentile converts kept biblical law. Gentiles who became Christians faced more opposition on the grounds of their allegiance to Jesus than on the grounds of their adherence to Old Testament law.
Would not Gentile converts have experienced enormous employment difficulties if they started observing Sabbath and annual holy days? Not at all. Not only would they have been in good company, employment arrangements then were very different from now. They didn't have a five-day, forty-hour work week. Employer satisfaction was based on employee output rather than on 9-5 work schedules. Believe it or not, people today, in our modern, free, non-discriminatory world, who decide to keep God's laws face more discrimination than Gentiles in the Roman Empire in the first century did.
Dialogue with Martin the Lutheran
Let's listen in while Martin, a keen Lutheran, discusses the law with Nickos, a Greek Christian in the church at Antioch in Paul's day.
Martin: Well, Nickos, you have presented me with clever arguments showing why you keep Old Testament law. But let me ask you this: haven't you faced opposition from your family and friends since you started keeping Jewish laws?
Nickos: Why do call them Jewish? God gave the law, not some Jew.
Martin: O.K. If you must be pedantic. But how about it? How do you cope with family resistance to your decision to follow Jesus and keep the same Jewish, sorry, biblical, laws he kept?
Nickos: At first my wife, Helen, was terribly upset. But we had a long talk about it and agreed that the mature thing for both of us to do is to accept the other's religious beliefs and not threaten our marriage by attacking the other's position. She is a reasonable woman.
Martin: What if she proved unreasonable? Do you think God would expect you to walk away from your marriage in order to keep His law?
Nickos: My wife appreciates that the law you are deriding has actually made me a more decent person. It stresses the sanctity of marriage, and I am more serious than ever about trying to be a good husband.
Martin: But what if she refused to cooperate?
Nickos: I cannot stop her leaving me, if that's what you mean. Jesus did warn about the possibility of loved ones turning against His disciples. I pray that will not happen. But we are to love Jesus more than our dearest companions.
Martin: I hear that she almost left you when your employer threatened to sack you if you wouldn't work on the Sabbath.
Nickos: I was hoping you wouldn't ask me that.
Martin: Why not?
Nickos: Because, I confess, I decided to keep working. My skills are very limited, and if I lost that job I would have virtually no chance of getting another. I didn't want to put Helen through that trauma.
Martin: That's the show. Now you are making a bit of sense. You realize that God doesn't expect a person to lose his livelihood over trivial matters.
Nickos: You misunderstand, Martin. I fear and tremble before God. His law is not to be lightly esteemed. When I turned to God in faith, I determined to keep it wholeheartedly.
Martin: So you are telling me you are a hypocrite.
Nickos: I'm telling you I am weak.
Martin: So you are willing to deliberately sin. What sort of Christian are you?
Nickos: No way am I snubbing God's revealed will. I pray daily for guidance to find a way around this dilemma. I am working night and day to develop a new skill so I can seek new employment. I constantly beseech God to be patient with me. I think He is carrying me through the sand.
Martin: You obviously don't know Jesus, Nickos. He doesn't care about nitpicking trivia. He just wants his disciples to love each other. The God of the Old Testament would have had you stoned for breaking the Sabbath. Remember the man who was killed for picking up sticks. Follow Jesus.
Nickos: I think you don't know Jesus, Martin. He kept the law faithfully while on earth. He is the same God as the one who ordered the man's stoning. That man had willfully rejected the law. Haven't you read how God was merciful to Aaron when he, through weakness, failed to eat a sin offering required by the law? After seeing his sons killed for offering profane fire, he was afraid that if he ate the offering in a wrong way he would suffer the same fate. Haven't you read how Naaman the Syrian, after accepting Israel's God, feared that the king would kill him if he didn't bow down in the temple of Rimmon? Elijah told him not to fear — God would not destroy a weak babe in the faith. Who knows? Twenty years later he might have been as contemptuous of death as Daniel and his companions.
Martin: Nickos, don't you think you would be a happier person if you simply forgot about external regulations?
Nickos: Martin, what is with you? You talk as if God did not know what He was talking about when He gave the law. Are you looking for loose bricks so you can relieve yourself of the obligation to actually take up the cross of discipleship? Don't you think you should quit arguing with God's revealed will, acknowledge your weaknesses, and simply seek His mercy in bearing with your numerous failings? That's what I have had to do.
Martin: Nickos, you may be right. I guess if the law was good enough for Jesus it should be good enough for me.
To see what other readers have thought, click here
Bruce, F. F. 1977, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Colwell, C. C. 1964, The Study of the Bible, Phoenix Books, Chicago & London
Dunn, J. D. 1990, Jesus, Paul and the Law, SPCK, London
Gibbon, Edward 1963, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Dell Publishing Co., Inc., New York
Oesterley, W. O. E. and Robinson, T. H. 1930, Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development, S.P.C.K., London
The Dawn to Dusk book "Shechem to Calvary: the story of the covenants" contains a truly helpful chapter on the question of law in relation to Old and New Covenants.
The Dawn to Dusk book "Showdown in Jerusalem", from which this article has been excerpted, has chapters on law and legalism, justification by faith, and the meaning of "under the law".
So many books have been written on the topic that we cannot begin to list them. We will recommend just one book that helps provide an overview of the various views. It is, "The Law, the Gospel and the Modern Christian: Five Views" by Greg Bahnsen and others.
One helpful book that defends the validity of law today is, Restoration, Returning the Torah of God to the Disciples of Jesus by D. Thomas Lancaster. Available at First Fruits of Zion web site.
Millennium Communications website advertizes a book on Galatians that, based on all indications, would be a very worthwhile read.
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