Updated: Jan 28
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 that 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)
One thing we know from Scripture is that the liturgical aspects of Torah were not to be seen as a yoke or bondage. King David calls them a delight and compares them to honey (ps. 119). However, the Torah that the apostles had been confronted with since they were young, was is the interpretation of the Pharisees. And they had made it burdensome. They primarily came from Jerusalem and the disciples were from Galilee. The Galileans were more nationalistic in their Jewish expression. They love the land of Israel. They were not big fans of the Jerusalem Pharisees.
And we see that is the Pharisee believers in verse five that are insisting that the Gentiles keep Torah and are circumcised. Peters words are not Scripture, but they are recorded in scripture. It's a narrative. And I believe his strong objection is not against Torah, but the pharisaical interpretation of Torah. Nevertheless, he is adamant that keeping God's laws has been difficult for the Jewish people and has brought judgment. Why put that on the Gentiles?
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, the 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 ritual, 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 people), Messianic and traditional, for the infighting between them over the faith. The non-Messianics would have done everything to destroy the faith of the Gentile believers.
It's more likely that they were saying that everything they were writing to the Gentiles about, the four prohibitions, can be seen in Scripture (Lev 19), and the place to hear the Scripture read was in the synagogue. "Moses is read..."
(Rabbi was an honorific title to gifted teachers in Yeshua’s day, but it 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 keep the ritual 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 for 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!
7. PAUL NEVER ENCOURAGES GENTILES TO KEEP LITURGICAL TORAH
In all of Paul’s writings, as he affirms over and over again moral living, humility, and holiness, he never once emphasizes Gentiles keeping the liturgical Law of Moses. He never once reminds them not to shave the corners of their beards or that mixing wool and linen would displease the Lord. He never encourages them to keep kosher. Does Paul ever encourage his hearers to keep the Sabbath…ever? No. If anything, in Romans he makes it clear that it is not essential for them.
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. (Rom. 14:5)
8. HE NEVER REBUKES THEM FOR NOT KEEPING THE CEREMONIAL TORAH
Conversely, in any of Paul’s writings, does he ever rebuke the congregations under his oversight for not adhering to ceremonial Torah? And yet, he rebukes them for division (1 Cor. 1:10-17) and immorality (1 Cor. 5). Furthermore, in his list of the deeds of the flesh, do any of them come close to the liturgical law, or are they not all instances of breaking the moral laws in some fashion?
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. (Gal. 5:22)
He doesn’t mention “failure to keep the Sabbath” or “eating unclean animals," though there can be no mistake that were there were many new believers that did not keep the sabbath and ate unclean animals.
9. TIMOTHY CIRCUMCISED, TITUS NOT
Why does Paul circumcise Timothy the Jew (Acts 16:1-5), but refuses to circumcise Titus the non-Jew (Gal. 2:3)? Because Timothy was raised in a non-Jewish home (Greek father) but was Jewish through his mother (making him Jewish according to Jewish law). Paul knew that if Timothy was not circumcised, this would have given credence to the false claim that Paul himself was not living as a Jew and teaching other Jews likewise (see next point).
But of Titus, he writes: Yet not even Titus who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. (Gal. 2:3) While Titus was enjoying all the fruits of salvation, he was not a Jew and therefore not compelled to be circumcised. If there is truly no difference in roles between Jewish believers and believers from the nations, they would either both have been circumcised or neither of them.
(notice I said difference in roles, not value. We are all equally valued to the Lord.)
10. PAUL’S REACTION TO ACCUSATION
In Acts 21 Paul is accused of teaching JEWS not to keep Torah.
“…the [Jewish Believers] 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.”
You would expect Paul to say, “Not only do I teach Jews to observe all of the Torah, but Gentiles as well,” if the One Law people are correct. But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he agrees with the plan of the apostles to confirm that he did indeed live as a Jew.
11. THREE CONCLUSIONS FROM ACTS 21
In this passage, James clarifies the apostolic stand regarding non-Jews and Torah. In fact, this very passage should put an end to the argument (though I know it won’t).
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.” (Acts 21:25)
So, according to Acts 21:20-25
• Jewish believers were “zealous for the Torah.”
• Paul himself was “living in obedience to Torah.”
• Non-Jewish believers were not expected to keep the liturgical Torah.
...but of course, they can if they desire to.
[Not all manuscripts have “observe no such thing,” – still the passage is clear.]
*Originally published on Aug. 27, 2013