Saturday, April 05, 2014

Christians and the Law: Why the Confusion?

“And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’ ”.
These words in Acts 15:1 introduce an issue that challenged the Christian church soon after its inception and would continue to be debated among the believers for years to come.

But where did this controversy originate?

The Cause 

In order to trace this issue back to its roots, one must go back to the Old Testament and consider what it has to say about the relationship between Jew and Gentile.

In the Garden of Eden and in the world of Noah’s day, Israel did not yet exist, so there was no distinction to be made between Jew and Gentile. The Law had not yet been revealed, and men were governed solely by conscience. Certain admonitions and restrictions were given to Noah by God after the flood, but these were few and general in nature. Not until God chose Abraham and his descendants to become his unique and special chosen people, Israel, and not until He raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage and to communicate to them His Law, did a clear distinction emerge between Jew and Gentile.

Once the distinction appeared, however, God made it clear that He wished the distinction between His people and the pagan nations to be readily apparent at all times.

First, all Jewish men were to undergo circumcision as an indelible mark of their relationship to God. Of course, Israel was not the only mid-eastern nation to practice circumcision, but for the Jews the ritual had special significance.

In addition to this distinguishing mark, God gave the Israelites a detailed and complex set of dietary, religious and social laws designed to remind them of their call to holiness and to prevent them from associating too closely with their Canaanite neighbors.

Although Jewishness was largely a matter of ancestry — descent from Jacob, or as God renamed him, Israel — it was nevertheless possible for a non-Jew to become part of the nation.

If, however, a Gentile wished to leave his pagan gods for the worship of Yahweh and enter in to God’s covenant with Israel, he must first be circumcised and then accept the Mosaic Law as binding on himself. One could not claim to be a worshipper of Yahweh and yet refuse to revere and keep the Law. There was no other means of approach to God save through the Mosaic ritual and regulations.

For centuries — even millennia — this pattern persisted.

Then the Lord Jesus Christ came, bringing with Him a new covenant in His blood. At first His exclusively Jewish disciples understood the message of the gospel as belonging to the nation of Israel alone, but the Holy Spirit soon directed otherwise, and the message spread through Philip to the half-Jewish Samaritans and the non-Jewish proselytes to Judaism, through Peter to the uncircumcised “God-fearers” like the Roman centurion Cornelius, and finally through Cypriot and Cyrenian disciples to the pagan and idolatrous Gentiles. With the advent of the apostle Paul’s ministry, great numbers of Gentiles began coming to the Lord.

The issue of how these non-Jewish believers were to be incorporated into the church body, therefore, became crucial.

The earliest converts to Christianity had been the Jerusalem Jews who heard Peter’s stirring sermon on the day of Pentecost. They had been “pierced to the heart” by his call for repentance, and some 3,000 of them had been baptized on that first day alone.

It was only natural, therefore, that these Jewish believers would feel anxious about seeing so many Gentiles entering the fellowship without undergoing the traditional conversion process. After all, in the past no Gentile could be counted among God’s people unless he was circumcised and submitted to the Law: why should it be any different now?

So it was that while Paul was ministering in the Gentile territories of Asia, he encountered a number of Jewish Christians who had traveled up from the Jerusalem area to make sure that the Gentiles understood their legal obligations.

Next: Why the debate was crucial


Published by permission of the author

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