Updated: Jan 28
This is part one in a four-part series called "Jews, Gentiles, and the Torah." We will send out each part weekly. While I am not a scholar, a scholar friend encouraged me that this was one of the best essays on this subject. Be blessed!
“Are you telling me that as a Gentile believer, I don’t have to keep the Sabbath or eat Kosher in order to be saved?” That was the question that a precious young believer asked me at the end of my message a few weeks ago. I taught all week at Blue Mountain Christian Retreat through my book Identity Theft, taking a hard look at the early communities of 1st-century believers and how they lived.
This woman had been taught in a Messianic congregation—I don’t know where—that God calls Gentiles to keep the Torah, just as Jews. Before I go further, let me make two points:
I do believe that Jewish believers are called to live a Jewish life according to Scripture as a matter of calling (Romans 11:29).
It has no bearing whatsoever on our salvation, which is obtained through faith in Yeshua’s blood, alone.
Having said that, there are some congregations that teach that God’s perfect plan is that the Gentiles also keep the ceremonial aspects of Torah, however mainstream Messianic Judaism and Messianic Jewish leaders reject this. Those who do teach this are part of the ‘One Law’ or ‘One Torah’ movement, which teaches that all believers need to adhere to the ritual (or liturgical/ceremonial) commands of Torah. While I do believe there is freedom for any believer to keep the entire Torah, it is not required. Let’s take a look at the word of God.
1. THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL
The very first theological council was about this very issue. In Acts 15, Messianic leaders that have been preaching the good news to the Gentiles gathered together. The issue at hand: Do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism in order to be saved?
After hearing impassioned testimony from Shimon Kefa (Peter), Jacob (James) ruled:
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. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath. (Acts 15:19-21)
Some have claimed that the last part “Moses… is read in the synagogues” meant that the Gentiles could grow in their Jewishness or understanding of Torah, over time. It is more likely that Jacob’s intention was to show that the four things that they were forbidden to do, were universally immoral ways to worship the one true God, and Torah would back that up. For example, “‘Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it," (Lev. 19:26) backs up the Jerusalem council's decision.
First, it is important to understand that the four prohibitions addressed how the former pagans, now believers, could worship. Obviously, they would adhere to other universal laws found in the Old Covenant, based in the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments (Thou shalt not lie, Thou shalt not steal, etc.),
But in their worship style, they had to forsake certain pagan practices, such as the drinking of blood or fornicating with temple prostitutes (and even rape was encouraged in the Roman world during the feast of Saturnalia), as these were clearly universally immoral worship practices to both Jew and Gentile. The Torah, which was read weekly, would affirm these prohibitions, hence v. 21.
And keep in mind, there was no New Testament to back up their claim! They are writing the New Testament. The only Biblical authority upon which they could rely was the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—known as the Tanach. But Jacob only mentions Moses—meaning the Torah? Why not all the Old Covenant? Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham has argued that each of the four prohibitions can be found in Leviticus 18-19. He claims that these practices are moral issues even though the context is worship, and they were abominations for which God cast the Canaanites out of the land. Jacob is saying, 1) "These pagan practices are inherently evil for all cultures," and 2) “Torah backs up this decision.”
Furthermore, one would have to believe that if the apostles wanted the Gentiles to attend the synagogue every week to learn the rituals of the Torah, they would have included this instruction from v. 21, about Moses being read in the synagogue weekly, in the letter that they gave Paul to show the congregations. But they didn’t! (See Acts 15:23-29)
2. GOD HAS CALLED ISRAEL TO BE A SEPARATE NATION
Israel was chosen from among nations to be a light to the rest of the world (Ex. 19:5-6, Is. 42:6, Gen. 12:3). This calling is not voided by the New Covenant. Paul says referring to natural Israel, “God’s gifts and call are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29) But nowhere does the New Covenant command Gentiles to live as Jews.
As the Jews embraced God’s Law, His anointing would attract the Gentiles.
"May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. (Ps. 67:1-2)
The One Law movement denies Israel her unique role as revealed in Scripture. To be clear, Israel is not better than other nations. Her unique calling was to be a blessing to the nations, not to be superior. And it was divine choice, not based on merit. It was God's design for mutual love and blessing between Israel and the nations. But the enemy has sought to use it as a barrier or means of offense. Many Jews have been viciously persecuted for claiming to be God's chosen nation. And, amongst my people, there is a small element, who claim superiority, in extreme religious communities. But most Jews reject such feelings.
3. PAUL’S WORDS TO GENTILES
When Gentiles were being taught that they had to be circumcised in order to be saved, Paul blew a gasket! Paul, who taught us that it is “faith alone, through grace” by which we are saved (Eph. 2:8), could not have been clearer regarding the Gentiles being required to keep the law of Moses:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Yeshua the Messiah was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3:1-3, 5)
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” (Gal. 3:10-11)
Now I understand that Paul was battling a heresy that was resolved in Acts 15—do the Gentiles need to convert to Judaism and be circumcised to be saved. But nowhere does he qualify his statements regarding Gentiles and the Torah. If Paul intended for Gentiles to keep the rituals of the Torah, he would have said, “Hey guys, while it isn’t a condition for salvation, I really want you to go to synagogue learn Torah.”
While it is clear that the new believing communities sprouting up in Gentile nations were aware of the Jewish roots of the faith (1 Cor. 5:7), where does Paul or any other New Testament writer encourage Gentile believers to live as Jews or embrace a Hebraic lifestyle? In the words of Dr. Daniel C. Juster, a pioneer in the Messianic movement and renowned theologian:
It is most telling that in all the epistles to congregations there is not a single word commanding Gentiles to adopt the whole Torah, and no direct statement of hope that they will eventually adopt a fully Torah keeping life in the same way as the Jews. There is no word of such an exhortation or even mild encouragement throughout the whole book of Acts, which is written in part to show the relationship of Jewish-Gentile fellowship!
WHY THEN ARE JEWISH BELIEVERS COMMANDED TO KEEP THE TORAH
Good question. First of all, let me repeat it, no one will be saved through works of the law—Jew or Gentile. However, Jews are called to live as Jews as a matter of eternal calling (not to obtain eternal salvation). I can eat a lobster tail today and it will not affect my salvation, but I would not be staying true to my calling as a Jew. In the Acts revival, the new Jewish believers were portrayed as being “Zealous for the Torah” (Acts 21:20). And this was a good thing!
However, while Gentiles are certainly free to keep the Torah, it is not their calling. Gentile believers should not be made to feel guilty for not worshiping on Saturday or keeping kosher. They certainly can, but they are not compelled. Ronin Parry says it well: “Gentiles were granted the status of full membership of the end-time community of God’s people without having to convert to Judaism.”
Regarding Israel, the Gentiles have a calling that Paul shares in Romans 11:11. He wants them to reach out to the Jewish people and "provoke them to jealousy." He wants them to shine the light of God's love to the people whose ancestors brought them Yeshua. If a Holocaust survivor met the great-grandson of someone who rescued him, would he not seek to be a blessing to him? Would he not hug his neck and bless him?
One of the greatest examples of this in the New Covenant can be seen in the lives of Titus and Timothy. After coming to faith Timothy, who was Jewish through his mother, was circumcised. Whereas Titus, a Greek, was not. “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised” (Gal. 2:3). In fact, Paul circumcises Timothy just before going on a journey to tell the Gentiles that they are not compelled to keep the whole Torah. “As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.” (Acts 16:4).
Imagine locking yourself in a room having never read the New Covenant. Then, without commentary from me or anyone else, you read the New Covenant. I am confident that you would come away with these two New Covenant truths:
1. Of course Jews who find the Jewish Messiah are still Jews.
2. Gentile believers become one with Israel but are not required to live as Jews.
*Originally published on Aug. 12, 2013