NOTE: This is the third installment in a series regarding whether or not God expected non-Jewish believers from the nations to keep Torah in the same way as Jews. As more and more believers embrace this theology (called the One Law movement) I wanted to take a strong look at what the Scriptures say. To be clear, this has nothing to do with Jewish superiority. God shows no favoritism. There are no limits to His love for Jew or Gentile. And Gentiles are free to keep as much of the Torah as they want to as long they don’t see it as mandatory for salvation. The questions we seek to answer are What was God saying through the apostles in Acts 15 and Does Israel have a unique role on earth? Be blessed and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.
1. WHY IS SYNAGOGUE EXHORTATION MISSING FROM JAMES’ ACTS 15 LETTER TO THE CONGREGATION?
One Law folks claim that Acts 15:21 was meant to encourage Gentile believers to attend synagogue weekly. “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
If that were James’ intent, it sure would have been easier if he simply added, “and these Gentiles who are turning to Yeshua can go there to learn more about Torah and add it to their lives.” Furthermore, it is very interesting that this verse (that One Law folks base their whole movement upon) is not even included in James’ letter to the congregations. There is not even a hint that he expects them to go to synagogue in the letter the apostles gave Paul, nor in Paul’s words to the congregations as he shares the Acts 15 letter with them, nor in James’ summary of Acts 15 in Acts 21:20-25.
Here is James’ Letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you … 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. Farewell.
2. ‘ANYTHING BEYOND’
If anything, the letter from James strengthens the argument that he was not calling for Gentiles to attend synagogue: It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements.
They were not required to do anything beyond those four prohibitions. The prohibitions were against those things in pagan worship which God abhors such as drinking blood or temple prostitution. But beyond that, there were no other ceremonial requirements.
3. DON’T PUT A YOKE ON THE NECKS OF THE GENTILES
What does Peter mean when he says:
“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?” (Acts 15:10)
What is the yoke to which he refers, if not the ceremonial Torah? It could not be just circumcision—something that happens to a boy at 8-days-old could hardly be a yoke. He is speaking of something that takes continual attention.
4. LAW OF MOSES – LITURGICAL OR MORAL?
Look at Acts 15:5 “The believing Pharisees said: ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.’” Now, when they said, law of Moses they were not referring to the moral/universal law, as Yeshua clearly upheld this in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul is constantly affirming moral living (from the Torah) in his writings. No one was arguing over whether or not the gentile believers could murder or steal. It seems clear they were referring to liturgical life. The “sharp dispute” (v. 2) had to do with ceremony, not morality.
5. WOULD THEY LEAD THEM TO ANTI-YESHUA RABBIS?
While I do believe that Jewish believers stayed in the synagogue until they were no longer welcomed, it is hard to believe that the apostles were encouraging their non-Jewish disciples to sit under the teachings of those who rejected Yeshua. (Unless the leadership of the synagogue had come to faith. I strongly believe that did happen in some cases, but not in the majority.)
The synagogue was increasingly in competition with the Messianic movement, because the Messianic movement had suddenly become more successful in winning Gentiles (something first century Judaism sought, unlike today). In many synagogues they most likely taught that Yeshua was not the Messiah and preached against the gospel, so it is unlikely the Jewish apostles were feeding their new Gentile brethren as sheep to wolves. In fact, it was in this same year that Claudius kicked all Jews out of Rome (40,000-50,000), Messianic and traditional, for the infighting between them over the faith. The non-Messianics would have done everything to destroy the faith of the Gentiles believers.
(Rabbi was an honorific title to gifted teachers in Yeshua’s day, but only became the name of the leader of a synagogue after 70 CE. I used it here just for clarity, though it was before 70 CE)
6. PAUL DOESN’T CLARIFY IN GALATIANS
In Galatians, Paul rebukes the Gentiles in the strongest terms for believing that circumcision was essential for salvation. But the apostle never even hints that God expects them to kept the ceremonial aspects of Torah—just not for salvation? You would think, if this was Paul’s intention, he would have at least said, “Hey guys, to be clear, God still would really like you to learn more about Torah, just not salvation. Make sure to keep attending synagogue so you can grow in this understanding.” But he doesn’t even hint at such a thing.
Again, nowhere in the New Covenant after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is this interpretation of Acts 15:21 (that Gentiles should attend synagogue to grow in Torah understanding) affirmed or supported—nowhere!