Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 3) Acts: What to Do With Those Filthy Gentiles

I find it interesting that our OT-following friend cites the Book of Acts so much in his email (see below) as evidence of Paul still following the OT religious law after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. 

First, unlike Galatians and Romans, which are letters we looked at before, Acts is a narrative. In the letters of the New Testament, imperatives—commands—are pretty easy to spot. On the other hand, narratives may contain teachings within the story—such as when Jesus instructs his disciples (which carry over to all of Jesus’ followers, including us living 2,000 years later), but narratives also involve a lot of descriptions of events and actions.

So, when someone is reading a narrative in the Bible, the reader has to ask, “Is this an imperative or merely descriptive?”

Just because we see someone doing something in a biblical narrative, even a person who is considered a hero of the faith, it doesn’t automatically mean we’re supposed to do the same thing. Hey, Abraham and King David were big time (biblically speaking), but they also did some bad stuff Christians clearly are not to imitate. Likewise, Peter is one of the greatest apostles to live, but he could be a block-head. So, just because we see Paul doing something in the Book of Acts, it doesn’t automatically mean Christians are required to do the same thing.

In fact, when we take into account what we already looked at in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans, it’s unlikely what we see in Acts means Christians are to follow the OT religious law. In fact, Acts itself gives us good reasons to doubt this.

AN EMAIL

Dear brothers and sisters in Messiah!

All believers listen up!

In Galatians 1, Paul says that there is only one gospel and those who teach a different one are under a curse.

In 2 Peter 3:14-17, Peter warns that many will misinterpret Paul’s difficult to understand writings, resulting in lawlessness and destruction.

  • Paul always kept the Sabbath (Acts 17:2; Acts 18:4)
  • Paul kept the Feasts (Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16)
  • Paul instructed us to keep the Feasts (1 Cor 5:7-8)
  • Paul believed all of the Torah (Acts 24:14)
  • Paul stated that we establish the Torah (Romans 3:31)
  • Paul taught from the Torah (Acts 28:23)
  • Paul obeyed the Torah (Acts 21:24; Romans 7:25)
  • Paul took delight in the Torah (Romans 7:22)
  • Paul told us to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16. 1 Cor 11:1)

There was no New Testament when the disciples were preaching the good news, they were using the Old Testament to prove who Yashuah is.

Please take this Shabbat and study the above…

Blessings to you and your families!

Shabbat Shalom!

Sincerely,

XXXX XXXXXX

THOSE FILTHY GENTILES

In Acts 10, we find one of the momentous accounts showing us that God’s salvation is not just for the Jews, but for Gentiles as well, when God supernaturally sets up a meeting between the apostle Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius.

Cornelius is a “god-fearer,” a non-Jew who worships and prays to the one true God (10:1-2), and God gives both Cornelius and Peter visions, leading to their encounter. In Peter’s vision, he sees “all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air” (10:12), and a voice says, “Rise, Peter; kill, and eat” (10:13). Now, based on the OT religious law, Jews lived by strict rules about what they could and could not eat to be ritually pure. Because of these OT ritual laws of what is “clean” and “unclean,” Jews couldn’t eat with the “unclean” Gentiles or even go into their homes. So, Peter protests, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean” (10:14). The voice answers, What God has cleansed, do not call common (10:15). As I mentioned earlier, Peter could be block-headed, so this back-and-forth repeats two more times (that is, three in all) before the vision ends (10:16).

When Peter meets Cornelius, the apostle brings up the OT ritual purity laws, but notice what Peter says this time:

 28 And he said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:27–28)

Peter proceeds to proclaim the good news of Christ to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit fills his listeners, and these former pagans are baptized as believers in Christ. Praise to God!

Then, when Peter returns to Jerusalem, those “of the circumcision” weren’t too happy about Peter mingling with non-Jews (11:1-3). But Peter recounts the whole supernatural ordeal, including his vision and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles (11:4-17). This group “of the circumcision” are Jewish Christians who held to the OT ritual purity laws, the practice of circumcisions, and—it’s safe to assume—the rest of the OT Law. Yet, “[w]hen they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (11:18).

Clearly, these OT ritual purity laws—with the related food laws, as well as circumcision—are things of the past.

THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL

What’s clear in Acts (and Paul’s letters) is that the same argument some of us are having today, is the same debate the first Christians (who were Jews) were having: Do Gentile Christians have to follow the OT Law? On top of that, do Jewish Christians have to follow the OT Law?

First, it’s clear to everyone that the OT Law was not needed for justification and salvation. After all, Paul declares in a synagogue,

38 Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: 39 And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38–39) (Emphasis mine)

Also, in Acts 15, arguably the most relevant chapters in the entire New Testament for addressing this topic, we find Paul and Barnabas ardently debating against a group of men who are teaching that unless someone is circumcised “after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (15:1-2). This was such a topic of debate, Paul and Barnabas were sent to discuss this with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Council. There, a group of Pharisees insisted that circumcision was required to keep the law of Moses (15:5).

Not only do Paul and Barnabas weigh in, but so does Peter, stating, “[W]hy tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they” (Acts 15:10–11). Here, I believe Peter has the whole OT Law in view, not just circumcision. After all, circumcision (though daunting for obvious reasons) is a one-time thing. But keeping the rest of the OT Law on a daily basis is certainly a weight the Jews could never perfectly keep—a “yoke…  neither our fathers nor we were able to bear.”

Afterwards, James, the brother of Jesus, concludes,

19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. (Acts 15:19–20)

In other words, he sees no reason to trouble the Gentiles with the OT Law, but he also advises the Gentiles to not participate in four things. Three have to do with food: food offered to idols (15:29), meat from strangled animals, and meat still with blood in it. Eating such things were forbidden by OT Law and are part of the ritual purity laws. Lastly, the Gentiles are to abstain from “fornication,” often translated as “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia, a catch-all word for all sexual activities forbidden by God.

So, the question is, why would James say that Gentile Christians should not be burdened with circumcision and the OT Law, but then highlight these things for the Gentiles to avoid? 

First, the Gentiles were coming from a different culture than the Jews, a culture where idol worship and unbiblical sexual practices were the norm. Sexually immoral things, such as sex with prostititues, was a regular part of their culture. In fact, sexual immorality was often tied to pagan religious rituals. Why James emphasized that Gentiles should avoid those things is easy to understand, but what about the prohibition against consuming strangled food and blood? Those surely sound like OT ritual purity laws.

When we take everything into account, we have to conclude that these were suggested by James so Gentile Christians could still eat and fellowship with Jewish Christians who still held to the OT Law. The first Christians were Jews, who still were holding to their life-long practices as Jews. But, the early church quickly became a new thing where both Jews and Gentiles found themselves siblings in Christ and doing this whole “church” thing together. James isn’t concerned about the Gentiles following the OT Law; he’s concerned about Gentiles partaking in food that would be a barrier between them fellowshipping with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. (Also, contrast this to 1 Cor. 8)

The rest of the apostles and elders agree, so instructions are sent to the churches (15:22-32), stating “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” (15:28).

So, when the apostles and elders—including Peter, Paul, and James—assembled to discuss the exact topic we’re discussing in this blog series, did they conclude the Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised? No. Did they say the Gentile Christians are required to keep the Passover or any Jewish holy day? No. Did the Jerusalem council declare that Gentile Christians need to keep the Saturday Sabbath? No. Think about it: This was the time for the Apostles to be abundantly clear about this! If the Gentile Christians had to uphold the OT religious laws, this was the time to declare it! And their conclusion wasn’t just their human opinion, but the judgment of the Holy Spirit (15:28).

The only question that remains is whether ethnically Jewish Christians need to still follow the OT Law. But let’s be honest, most of us aren’t ethnically Jewish; therefore, the answer is a “no” for the vast majority of us.

ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE: Do Jewish Christians Still Have to Follow the Law?

Are Christian Jews both under the new covenant of Christ as well as the old covenant of Moses? Admittedly, I haven’t studied this question in depth, but I’m going to argue the answer is “no” for the reasons I will lay out below. 

First, Christ fulfilled the OT Law (Matt. 5:17, 26:54). This is testified to in Scripture. Scripture also testifies that Christ did this for everyone. To put it another way, if Christ fulfilled the OT Law—it’s fulfilled! It’s not somehow fulfilled for Gentiles and not Jews. Anyone, whether Gentile or Jew, who puts his faith in Christ benefits from Jesus’ life and death and enters into the new covenant.

Secondly, based on the New Testament evidence, Paul no longer believed it was required to follow the OT Law, but when we do see him observing it, it was primarily because (1) he doesn’t want to offend his fellow Jews and (2) he wants to reach his fellow Jews with the Gospel of Christ. After all, it would be impossible to share about Christ if his fellow Jews reject him.

(We also have to take into account that Paul has lived his whole life as a strict Law-following Jew [Acts 22:3, 6], so he’d likely continue to do a lot of Jewish things culturally, though not required by his beliefs. Sort of like how even people who were raised Christian and leave the faith still partake in Christmas celebrations. For them Christmas has no religious significance, only cultural significance.)

To best see all this with Paul, we need to leave Acts briefly for Romans and 1 Corinthians. In the last article, we looked at Paul’s “Stumbling Block Principle.” Paul explains that there are Christians getting bent out of shape over whether Christians should eat certain things and recognize certain holy days (Rom. 14:1-15:1). But instead of Paul advising Christians to argue with these people, he tells them to voluntarily submit to these others, putting aside their rights of freedom in Christ, so as not to be a “stumbling block” to the others’ faith.

Yet, in no uncertain terms, Paul refers to those insisting that Christians ought to follow rules about eating and holy days as the weak in faith (Rom. 14:1; 1 Cor. 8:9-11), and those that don’t (who are to put their rights aside for the sake of their fellow Christians) are the strong in faith (Rom. 15:1). 

This alone is powerful evidence that Paul did not see the following of the OT Law as required for any Christians, but when we look at 1 Corinthians, we get even more insight. Similar to Romans 14, Paul brings up the Stumbling Block Principle when it comes to food:

 8 But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. 9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (1 Corithians 8:7–9)

Paul states “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13 ESV). But, to drive home his point, he goes on to ask some rhetorical questions to emphasize that he totally has the freedom to eat and drink what he pleases:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?… 3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? (1 Cor. 9:1-4)

Then, we come to the bombshell:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19–23)(Emphasis mine)

If Paul believed that he was still under the OT Law, would he ignore the Law when ministering to those “outside the law,” i.e. Gentiles? Wouldn’t that be a grave sin to dismiss God’s Law? But it’s not sin for Paul to live as “one outside the law” because he is “under the law of Christ.” In addition, Paul couldn’t put it more plainly when he said he follows the law when he’s around Jews “though not being myself under the law”!

So, when we see Paul going to the synagogue (Acts 17:2) and keeping the sabbath (Acts 18:4) and the festivals (Acts 20:6, 16), he’s doing so to “become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”  Remember Acts is a narrative so it’s descriptive, but not necessarily prescriptive.

Take as another example Paul’s circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16. Having just read about the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, which stated that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised, why does Paul have Timothy circumcised in Acts 16? 

Timothy’s mother was a Jewish Christian, but his father was a Gentile, so he was not circumcised like full-blooded Jews, but…

3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3 ESV)

Thus, Timothy did not have to be circumcised for any religious reason, but he was circumcised to “become all things to all people, that by all means [he and Paul] might save some.” This is an interesting contrast to what Paul writes in Galatians about refusing to circumcise Titus, a Gentile (Gal. 2:3), so “that the truth of the gospel might continue” (Gal. 2:5).

 So, when we come to Acts 21:24, a verse cited by our OT Law-following friend in his email as evidence that Paul obeys the OT Law, he misses the whole point. Paul is once again becoming “all things to all people” because the church is taking heat from the OT Law-following Jews. When Paul returns to Jerusalem, he’s received gladly by James and the elders and they glorify God for Paul’s ministry (21:17-20). Everything between Paul, James, and the Jerusalem elders is copacetic, but the church leaders also tell him,

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, 21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. 22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. (Acts 21:20-22 ESV)

Where the OT Law has not been an issue in the Gentile churches, once Paul returns to Jerusalem it’s still a topic of controversy. Despite its ruling, it seems the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 didn’t, in fact, settle the matter for many in Jerusalem. Clearly, it’s still a big topic of contention among the Jewish Christians. Thus, the leadership of the Jerusalem church urge Paul to participate in a Nazirite vow to appease the Law-following Jewish Christians (21:23-26).

Yet, Paul’s opponents are so zealous and hostile towards Paul, they falsely accuse him of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, which is forbidden, just because they saw him with a Gentile earlier in the city. Chaos erupts and Paul is rescued from mob violence by the Romans (21:27-36). When Paul addresses the crowd in the Hebrew language, citing his Jewish upbringing and education, the mob settles. Yet, as soon as he mentions his commissioning by Jesus to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, the crowd starts crying for his blood again. For everyone’s safety, the Romans escort him away (21:37-22:24). 

Plainly, the situation in Jerusalem was volatile and explosive. Paul was trying to be “all things to all people” to maintain the peace in Jerusalem, but in this situation, it didn’t help.

Finally, we have two last verses from Acts cited by our OT Law-following friend in his email:

14 But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets (Acts 24:14)

23 And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. (Acts 28:23)

To close, all I can say to these two passages is “Amen!” I am a Gentile follower of Christ, who believes in the inerrancy, preservation, sufficiency, and truth of Scripture—both the Old Testament and New Testament. I also believe, based on everything we looked at in these three articles, I am not required to follow the OT religious and ritual law. (But, I do my best in the power of the Holy Spirit to follow God’s unchanging moral law.) Yet—like Paul—I believe “all things which are written in the law and in the prophets” and use both the law of Moses and the prophets to testify to the Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ, my savior, who freed me all from slavery.

All glory to Christ!

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 1) Galatians: Paul Gives a Smackdown

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 2) Romans: It’s the End of the Law as We Know It (and Paul Feels Fine)

Related GFTM Articles:

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 1 of 2) Are OT laws arbitrary, offensive & silly?

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 2 of 2) Why do Christians follow some OT laws & not others?

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 2) Romans: It’s the End of the Law as We Know It (and Paul Feels Fine)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes a similar argument as in his letter to the Galatians, which we looked at in the last article. Our friend who claims Christians must continue to follow the Old Testament (OT) religious and ritual law cites three passages from Romans to support his view (See the email below). When looking at the overall argument Paul makes in Romans, we see that our friend’s use of these three verses are one of the most common techniques used by those trying to justify fringe views: cherry-picking—that is, plucking a verse out of the Bible and ignoring the context around it. In order to take these verses as teaching that Christians are still obligated to keep the OT Law, one has to ignore much of the flow of Paul’s argument in his letter.

AN EMAIL

Dear brothers and sisters in Messiah!

All believers listen up!

In Galatians 1, Paul says that there is only one gospel and those who teach a different one are under a curse.

In 2 Peter 3:14-17, Peter warns that many will misinterpret Paul’s difficult to understand writings, resulting in lawlessness and destruction.

  • Paul always kept the Sabbath (Acts 17:2; Acts 18:4)
  • Paul kept the Feasts (Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16)
  • Paul instructed us to keep the Feasts (1 Cor 5:7-8)
  • Paul believed all of the Torah (Acts 24:14)
  • Paul stated that we establish the Torah (Romans 3:31)
  • Paul taught from the Torah (Acts 28:23)
  • Paul obeyed the Torah (Acts 21:24; Romans 7:25)
  • Paul took delight in the Torah (Romans 7:22)
  • Paul told us to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16. 1 Cor 11:1)

There was no New Testament when the disciples were preaching the good news, they were using the Old Testament to prove who Yashuah is.

Please take this Shabbat and study the above…

Blessings to you and your families!

Shabbat Shalom!

Sincerely,

XXXX XXXXXX

*Note: Since our author of this email may be a “King James Only-ist,” I will be primarily using the King James translation.

ROMANS: Righteousness By Christ Alone

Romans is a much longer, complicated letter than Galatians, but Paul’s flow of thought is not hard to see. Paul begins by explaining the sorry state of things; much of mankind is in rebellion against its Creator (Chapter 1-2). Even Jews, who were given God’s Law, fail to live righteously, leading Paul to ask in Chapter 3:

9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin (Rom. 3:9)

Or, to put it another way:

What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin (Rom. 3:9 NAMB)

So, both Jews and Gentiles fail to live up to God’s righteousness, and God’s OT Law shines a spotlight on this sad fact:

19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:19-23)

So, both Jews and Gentiles fall short of God’s goodness—there is no difference between them in this way—but immediately now we get the good news, that no difference also exists between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to being justified and redeemed by the blood of Christ:

24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. (Rom. 3:24-26)

Thus, Christians are justified not by obeying the OT Law, but by faith in Christ. They are “justified freely by his grace.” Paul immediately continues:

27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law. (Rom. 3:27-31)

So, being circumcised or doing any other part of OT Law is not the key to forgiveness of sins, justification, and righteousness, but faith alone in Christ. What Paul calls “the law of faith” leads to right standing before God.

Here, we come to the first verse in Romans referenced by our OT Law-following friend in his email (3:31). When cherry-picked out of context, it does appear to support his view. After all, it does say “we establish the law” or even “we uphold the law” (ESV). But we must understand this in the flow of Paul’s thought. It would certainly be odd for Paul to write this beautiful passage about Christians being made justified by Christ “without deeds of the law” in 3:28, only to have him say we need to still follow the OT Law in 3:31! No, Paul is not saying Christians must still follow the OT Law. The OT Law was fulfilled in Christ, as Christ himself said he would do (Matt. 5:17). Therefore, Christian faith in Christ also fulfills—established, upholds—the purpose of the Law. This will become clearer as we continue, as we see with Paul’s words in 8:4: 

“That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”

This statement in 3:31, then, immediately moves us into Chapter 4, where Paul uses Abraham as a biblical example of someone counted righteous through faith (4:3, 5). One of Paul’s big points is that Abraham was declared to be righteous before he received the command of circumcision (4:9-12); thus, righteousness is through faith, not works:

13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. (Rom. 4:13)

Similar to his letter to the Galatians, Paul says those who live in faith are descendants of Abraham. Righteousness and justification—by God’s grace—will be given to those who believe in Christ.

 16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all… 24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; 25 Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification (Rom 4:15–16, 24–25)

THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT

Paul states Christians are “justified by faith” (5:1). This justification and righteousness before God is a “free gift” of God’s grace, meaning it’s not something earned through obeying religious rituals and rites. Otherwise, how is it in any way a “free gift” and a “gift of grace” (5:14-17)? Paul expands on this:

18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation [see Gen. 3]; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s [Adam’s] disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one [Christ] shall many be made righteous. 20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: 21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:14-21) (Emphasis mine)

So, where the OT Law shines a spotlight on humankind’s sinfulness, it also—at the same time—accentuates God’s grace! Reading this, I can’t help but think of Paul’s strong words from his letter to the Ephesians: 

8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)

Likewise, he states later in Romans:

14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:14)

Jesus proclaimed that he had come to fulfill the OT Law:

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. (Matt. 5:17)

Christians do not have to fulfill the OT Law because Christ did it for us. This is what Paul is referring to when he writes,

10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life... 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. (Rom 5:10, 19) (Emphasis mine)

Jesus fulfilled the OT Law by perfectly living it out, something no one could do other than the God-man Jesus. Theologians call this Jesus’ “active obedience.” Then, he further fulfilled the OT Law by dying on the cross. Theologians call this Jesus’ “passive obedience.” Someone once pointed out to me that a law can be fulfilled in two ways: (1) Someone can obey the law or (2) one can break the law and then fulfill it by paying the penalty for breaking it. Thus, Jesus fulfilled the OT Law in two ways: He obeyed it perfectly, but he also took the penalty—our penalty—for breaking it.

Therefore, Christians are “dead to the law by the body of Christ” (7:4) and “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” (7:6) The OT Law shows us what sin is (7:7-25) and we all fall short, but…

22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom. 7:22-25)

Here, we come to the two other verses from Romans cited in our OT Law-following friends’ email (7:22 and 7:25). Yes, Paul states in these verses that he delights in the Law and serves the Law, but didn’t Paul just say Christians “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter,” that is, not the written OT Law (7:6)? So, Paul is speaking of the “law of the Spirit,” not the OT Law, as we see in his immediate words to follow: 

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: 4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-4) (Emphasis mine)

So, what the OT Law could not give, the law of the Spirit can: freedom from sin and death. Those who walk in the Spirit fulfill the righteousness of the Law. Even the Gentiles, who the OT Law wasn’t given to, have attained righteousness through faith, but Israel has not attained it because they tried to fulfill it through works, not faith:

30 What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. 31 But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness… 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom. 9:30-31, 10:3-4) (Emphasis mine)

What was that again?

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. (Rom. 10:4)

Later in Chapter 10, Paul gives us one of the great statements of how salvation is attained. It says nothing about obeying the OT Law:

9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. 12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. 13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Rom. 10:9-13)

In Chapter 11, Paul reminds us again that salvation is attained not through works, but by God’s grace:

5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. 6 And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work. (Rom. 11:5-6)

Or, to put it another way,

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom. 11:5-6 ESV)

Paul clearly teaches that right standing before God—which includes justification and righteousness—doesn’t come through obeying the OT Law.

THE WEAK IN FAITH

Like we saw in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul’s big ideas are clear throughout Romans. We find nothing to suggest that Christians need to continue to obey the OT religious Law. Everything we see points in the opposite direction.

To close, let’s look at one last passage. In many of Paul’s letters, he encourages peace and unity within the young church, often calling Christians to humble themselves and put others’ needs before their own. In Chapter 14 of Romans, Paul writes that the church should not quarrel over opinions about non-essential practices. (Pause here and read Romans 14:1-15:1.) He specifically mentions disagreements over what Christians should and should not eat and the practice of “esteeming one day above another” (14:5). Here, Paul introduces his stumbling block principle. The idea is to not do anything that might make other Christians stumble in their faith, even if you have the right to do it. 

Since Paul mentions drinking wine (14:21), let me use drinking alcohol as an example of Paul’s Stumbling Block Principle. Since Jesus turned water into wine and there are no commands absolutely prohibiting the drinking of alcohol in the Bible, I believe it’s okay for a Christian to enjoy a glass of wine as long as one does not get drunk, since drunkenness is clearly prohibited in the Bible. Yet, many Christians feel strongly that Christians should not drink alcohol at all. According to Paul’s “stumbling block principle,” though I believe it’s biblically allowable for a Christian to drink wine, if I were around a Christian who was against doing so, I’d abstain from, say, having a glass of wine while I’m out to dinner with him. Though I have the right to do so, I’d forfeit this right for the sake of my brother in Christ.

This passage gives valuable insight into our debate about whether Christians need to follow the OT Law concerning religious and ritual practices. To be clear, Christians are obligated to follow the OT moral commands because they’re based on God’s unchanging character and purposes for creation. If there’s any question, many of those commands are repeated in the New Testament. Yet, we don’t find this with the OT religious commands because Christ fulfilled them through his perfect life and death. As we’ve seen, Paul in both his letter to the Galatians and Romans fills considerable space arguing that Christians are a people under the grace of God through faith and not under the OT Law of works.

In Romans 14, Paul specifically mentions debates about what is allowable to eat and if certain days should be esteemed as better than others (14:2-3, 5). These debates could certainly include dietary restrictions found in the OT Law as well as debates over days of sabbath rest, OT festivals, and holy days. This is certainly in line with the context of Romans (and Galatians) and what Paul writes in Colossians:

16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (Col. 2:16-17)

(Also see Galatians 4:9-10.) In 1 Corinthians, we get insight into one of these debates over food (see 1 Cor. 8) about whether Christians should eat food offered to pagan idols. Interestingly, Paul uses the Stumbling Block Principle here too (1 Cor. 8:9-13). Where it’s possible Romans 14 may not only be about dietary and holy day beliefs concerning the OT Law, it’s certainly a good possibility the OT Law is in view here based on the context of Paul’s letters. In fact, Paul writes in Romans 14:14, “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself,” which is a clear reference to the ritual purity laws of the OT Law concerning food. Paul goes on to state,

17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost… 20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure (Rom. 14:17, 20)

Christ has set us free from the OT ritual purity laws. The Christian life has considerable freedom in comparison to life under the OT Law. Christians are under the new covenant, not the old covenant (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

Now, let me point out one last—but important—thing about Paul’s Stumbling Block Principle: Paul refers to those who might “stumble”—that is, those who might have their faith in Christ shaken or injured by what people eat and what holy days they recognize—as the weak Christians! That is, those who are insisting that Christians must eat one thing over another or that Christians must recognize one day over another are, in fact, the weaker in faith! He starts this section by stating, 

Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. (Rom. 14:1)

In other words,

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. (Rom. 14:1–2 ESV)

We find a similar statement in 1 Corinthians:

9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (1 Cor. 8:9)

And those who aren’t concerned about such things (yet are to conform to prevent weaker Christians from stumbling) are the strong in faith:

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. (Rom. 15:1)

To reiterate, Paul is so unconcerned about what to eat and what days are holy that he tells the strong in faith to go along with the weak because what Christians eat or days they recognize—for the most part—don’t matter.

To close, a warning from Paul:

17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. 18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple. (Rom. 16:17-18)

Let me just say again how sad I think it is that this group of believers serving as witnesses of the gospel in an international, secular corporation has been hijacked by someone who has made things God’s divine Scripture deems insignificant a central focus of this group of believers.

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 1) Galatians: Paul Gives a Smackdown

Related GFTM Articles:

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 1 of 2) Are OT laws arbitrary, offensive & silly?

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 2 of 2) Why do Christians follow some OT laws & not others?

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

Must Christians Follow the Old Testament Law? (Part 1) Galatians: Paul Gives a Smackdown

AN EMAIL

Dear brothers and sisters in Messiah!

All believers listen up!

In Galatians 1, Paul says that there is only one gospel and those who teach a different one are under a curse.

In 2 Peter 3:14-17, Peter warns that many will misinterpret Paul’s difficult to understand writings, resulting in lawlessness and destruction.

  • Paul always kept the Sabbath (Acts 17:2; Acts 18:4)
  • Paul kept the Feasts (Acts 20:6; Acts 20:16)
  • Paul instructed us to keep the Feasts (1 Cor 5:7-8)
  • Paul believed all of the Torah (Acts 24:14)
  • Paul stated that we establish the Torah (Romans 3:31)
  • Paul taught from the Torah (Acts 28:23)
  • Paul obeyed the Torah (Acts 21:24; Romans 7:25)
  • Paul took delight in the Torah (Romans 7:22)
  • Paul told us to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16. 1 Cor 11:1)

There was no New Testament when the disciples were preaching the good news, they were using the Old Testament to prove who Yashuah is.

Please take this Shabbat and study the above…

Blessings to you and your families!

Shabbat Shalom!

Sincerely,

Xxxx Xxxxx

A Response

Above is an email a friend shared with me. He works for a large corporation, and what’s good to hear is that within the corporation some Christians started a group for believers to meet, fellowship, and study the Bible with their coworkers. The bad news is that when the former volunteer organizer of the group stepped down, the person who stepped in started using the group as a platform to promote his own fringe beliefs. Essentially, he highjacked a cross-denomination Christian group to push these fringe beliefs instead of focusing on the shared, essential beliefs all Christians hold in solidarity.

As you can guess from his email above, he is promoting a type of Christianity that still follows the Old Testament (OT) religious laws. I have spend time before writing about how Christians should understand the OT Law—as well as the importance of the OT in understanding the New Testament—(See links below), but let’s get more specific in this article (and future ones) as we respond to this man’s views.

Note: Since I’ve been told this man also seems to be a “King James Only-ist,” I’ll be using the King James so to remove one barrier in communication.

GALATIANS: Paul Get Livid

To begin, it’s ironic that one would start an argument that Christians should follow the Old Testament (OT) Law by citing Galatians 1 when Paul’s letter to the Galatians—easily one of his most stern and vehement letters—argues the exact opposite! I recommend reading the whole letter yourself, but here are some highlights:

6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:6–9)

Paul begins his letter with very strong language and a strong condemnation of anyone who preaches another gospel than the true gospel of Christ, which Paul received from Christ himself (Gal. 1:11-12). So, what is this other, false “gospel” Paul is addressing? As we continue in the letter, it becomes clear: 

3 But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: 4 And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: 5 To whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. (Gal. 2:3–5)

Paul speaks of Titus, who was not “compelled to be circumcised” in accordance to OT Law. Thus, immediately we see that circumcision, which was commanded by God for all male Jews in the OT Law, is not something Titus must do. This shows us immediately to start that not everything in the OT Law carries over to Christians under the new covenant of Christ (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). The covenant Christians are under is not the same covenant Israel was under. (Let me point out that Christians are still under God’s moral law that we find in the OT, since God’s moral law is unchanging because it’s grounded in God’s unchanging character and his divine design for creation. If there’s any question, most of these moral commandments are repeated in the New Testament. This is not the case with the OT religious and ritual law.)

In the above Scripture, Paul also speaks of false brothers that wish to bring them into bondage (i.e. slavery), but they resist them for “the truth of the gospel.” Surprisingly, even the apostles Peter and Barnabas were taken in by this faulty theology, which leads to Paul having a confrontation with Peter:

11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. 13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. 14 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? (Gal. 2:11–14)

Along with circumcision, the Jews had strict rules based on OT Law about ritual purity. These included laws about what they could and could not eat and even who they could and could not eat with. Since Gentiles didn’t follow these ritual purity laws, Jews were forbidden to eat with them. Yet, because of the life and death of Christ, these purity laws are fulfilled and now defunct. Peter and Barnabas knew this, but essentially gave into the peer pressure of their fellow Jewish Christians and once again stopped eating with Gentiles. Jumping ahead in the letter, this injustice leads to Paul pronouncing:

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28–29)

Thus, all those who proclaim Christ as their Lord and Savior are the true descendants of Abraham and the receivers of the promise God made to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). But continuing right where we are in Chapter 2, Paul says, 

15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Gal. 2:15–16)

Paul couldn’t be clearer: Christians are justified by faith in Christ alone, not by doing works of the OT Law, nor any law. He goes on to say that to believe otherwise is to “frustrate the grace of God,” and if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for nothing:

21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. (Gal. 2:21)

As I said, this is one of Paul’s most blunt and vehement letters! He doesn’t mince words, going on to call the Galatians “foolish” for buying in to such things, and, thus, they’re under a curse:

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2 This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?… 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:1–2, 10–13)

In 3:10 above, Paul even references the OT (Deut. 27:26) in saying that the person who lives by the Law, must do all of the Law or else he or she is cursed. So, if you’re going to follow some of the Law, you must follow all of it, according to the Law itself. But we already know that Christians don’t have to be circumcised, so Christians are not required to keep all or even some of the Law, according to Paul’s own thinking. But—all glory to Jesus—“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law.” We receive the Holy Spirit and righteousness, not through doing works of the Law, but through faith (Gal. 3:2, 5).

24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. 26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:24–26)

Above, Paul refers to the OT Law as a “schoolmaster.” This word can also be translated “tutor” or “guardian.” The idea is that the OT Law was preparing and teaching the people of God. The implication is that the OT Law was preparing the people of God for something to come later. After all, children have a “schoolmaster” but eventually grow to adulthood. Yet, we don’t even need to go into the significance of the meaning behind “schoolmaster” here; we only have to see that Paul states that Christians are no longer under this “schoolmaster.” We are made children of God, not by following the OT Law, but by faith in Christ. To say otherwise is to preach another gospel, for the gospel of Christ is freedom from slavery:

 7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Gal. 4:6–7)

Paul continues with his strong language, asking why would the Galatians want to become slaves again after being set free by Christ:

9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. (Gal. 4:9–10)

Notice, Paul considers it slavery to be observing “days, and months, and times, and years.” This is likely—based on the clear context of the letter—to be a reference to special days and times observed by Jews according to the OT Law. Based on this and other New Testament Scripture, I believe Christians do not have to observe OT festivals and holy days like the Sabbath and the Passover. Again, Christ fulfilled these. In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul writes,

16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (Col. 2:16–17)

(Perhaps we will explore the Sabbath more in the future. In the meantime, here are some more passages to consider: Matt. 11:28-30; Mark 2:27; Rom. 14:5; Heb. 4:1-10; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10.)

I think you get the point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul goes on to emphasize his big ideas, stressing again that we are free in Christ and not to be under the yoke of slavery again (5:1); to do one part of the Law means we have to keep all of the Law (5:2-3), and if you live to keep all of the OT Law, it means you have fallen away from God’s grace (5:4). Paul closes the letter by saying those who push for circumcision do so to glory in (or boast in) the flesh, but we are only to glorify in (or boast in) the cross of our Lord and Christ (6:13-14).

To conclude, I close where we started with Paul’s words:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. (Gal. 1:6 ESV)

Related GFTM Articles:

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 1 of 2) Are OT laws arbitrary, offensive & silly?

Making Sense of Old Testament Laws (Part 2 of 2) Why do Christians follow some OT laws & not others?

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Mark)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Matthew)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of Luke + Series Final Results)

Dealing with “Apatheism” & Understanding the Joy of New Creation (Book Reviews)

Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care by Kyle Beshears (B & H Academic)

Kyle Beshears’ book tackles an extremely problematic question that is often overlooked in discussions on evangelism: How do you share your faith with those who simply don’t care about God? Even if you share your faith, how do you get the person to care enough to consider what you said?

When you get down to it, it’s actually easy to get into conversations with ardent atheists. Ardent atheists have strong beliefs and they want to talk—or at least debate—about those beliefs. In the same way, it’s easy to get into a spiritual conversation with a religious non-Christian because they care about spiritual things. But how do we engage the “apatheist”—someone who believes God is irrelevant? 

Beshears lays out the symptoms in a society that lead to apatheism: secular, comfortable, and distracted—all aspects of American culture. Further, radical individualism feeds it, where it’s believed we can create our own meaning to life. Additionally, mix in pluralism and the internet age of too many options. Not that exposure to other beliefs is bad within itself, but too many options leads to many experiencing a mental fatigue, so they don’t hold to any belief all that strongly or simply don’t wish to engage with anyone about them. Keep in mind, even a professed Christian can still be an apatheist. This is the “practical atheist” (or what I often call a “functional atheist”) in your pews whose Christian identity has no impact on their lives.

Since the “apatheist” is one who both “believes God is irrelevant and feels apathetic towards him,” Beshears proposes that we have to hit them first emotionally to wake them up. How do we do this? We go after their idols. We make them aware that anything other than God that they find their happiness in can be taken away; it will ultimately let them down. Then, once we jolt them enough to listen, we point them to Christ as the only lasting source of joy. Augustine wrote of God, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.”

Beshears points out another important point many would overlook: Before doing this effectively, we can’t be apatheists ourselves! We have to ask ourselves, Have I lost my joy in Christ? What must I do to recapture it? Does my life display the joy and hope I have in Christ? After all, we don’t just want them to know Christianity is true, but we want them to want it to be true. Anselm once stated that an emotional desire for Christianity to be true is a necessary step before someone could be intellectually convinced of the gospel.

At barely 100 pages, Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care is certainly worth the read. Whenever I read a book like this, I always end by wishing it had more practical advice and real-world examples, but Beshears has written a book with both those things that is a great help to anyone hoping to share their faith. Beshears has written a much-needed book that is a welcomed gift to the church. I hope this book will start a conversation and lead to more Christian thinkers tackling this topic.

*B & H provided me with a free copy for review.

The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture by Frank Thielman (Crossway)

The New Creation and the Storyline of Scripture is the third book I’ve read (and reviewed) from the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series by Crossway. So far, I’ve enjoyed and benefited from the books tracing an important theme throughout the Bible. That would include this book, which follows the prominent biblical theme of new creation. Of the three Short Studies books I’ve read, this is the most basic; new creation is a biblical theme many Christians are aware of already. If you are already familiar with the big story of the Bible, it’s a theme that’s not hard to see. So, I would recommend this book to someone as an introduction to biblical theology, someone who doesn’t have a good grasp of the overall storyline of the Bible.

This is by no means a negative thing; tracing the theme is both essential to the Christian worldview and beautiful to see in Scripture. From the moment the new creation fell under the destruction of sin, God put his plan into effect to restore it, from the proclamation of the coming one who would crush Satan’s head, to the establishment of the nation of Israel, to the prophecies of the prophets, to the miracles of Jesus, to the born-again followers of Jesus becoming “new creations,” to the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth in the Book of Revelation. As I said, it’s a beautiful and essential thing for Christians to understand, showing us how we can have both hope and joy in the face of current turmoil and suffering.

*Crossway provided me with a free copy for review.

Is Jesus “a god”? Revisiting John 1:1 & the Jehovah’s Witness Translation

KNOCK, KNOCK. WHO’S THERE? J.W., WHO?

John 1:1 reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (ESV)

But not so fast! These astonishing statements at the beginning of John’s gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of orthodox Christian belief: Jesus is God, and God is at least two persons, bringing into view the Trinity. Yet, our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall say two thousand years of Christianity has gotten it all wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of the Bible, the New World Translation, has John 1:1 as follows: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” (New World Translation) 

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is correct? The Greek word for “God” or “god” is theos. Ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization like we do today with English, so looking at the original Greek to see if “theos” is capitalized won’t help us. So, let’s focus on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, a few of them. 

WHO’S TRANSLATING?

To start, I once made the mistake of boldly stating in a blog that no scholar of New Testament era Greek has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. (For the record, this article covers much of the same info, but adds to it as well.) I should’ve known better than to make such an absolute statement unless I had absolute knowledge that the statement I was making was absolutely correct. Pushback came swiftly, accompanied by a list of translations where John 1:1 reads “a god.” Lesson learned. I repent. But please allow me to humbly cross-examine these translations. After all, just because something is found on the internet doesn’t mean it’s good information. (I realize that may come as a shock to some of you. That was sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell.)

First, were all these translations made by scholars of New Testament (Koine) Greek? After all, I wasn’t claiming no other translations out there read “a god”; I specifically claimed none were made by New Testament Greek scholars. Does the translator have a PhD in Koine Greek? Hold a position at a reputable university? Publish Greek grammar articles in peer-reviewed journals? Also—and this is important—was the translation made by a committee of Greek scholars? I’m sure you understand how easily a single person making a translation can make errors or smuggle in personal preferences without the checks and balances of working within a group of professionals. (And we should ask these same exact questions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation! To start: Who, exactly, translated it?)

Let me point out, even if the translations that read “a god” come from qualified and credible sources, they’re still in the vast minority. I can say with complete confidence that “a god” is plainly rejected by the great multitude of legitimate scholars. 

NOT DEFINITE ABOUT THE DEFINITE ARTICLE

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the theos, and the Word was theos.” This is accurate. But their argument is that since the second use of theos doesn’t have “the” (the definite article, for you grammar nerds), then the first use of theos is speaking of the one and only God (“the God”) and Jesus, the Word, is something like God but lesser. He’s “a god.” 

This isn’t how Greek grammar works. For one, the definite article (“the”) is used differently in Greek than in English, so it’s often not even translated into English. As we see, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World version doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where on earth do they get the idea that the lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos appears without the definite article (“the”) in the Greek, they should translate it as “a god” or, at least, as a lowercase “g” god. Yet, theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the” and their own translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lowercase “god” elsewhere. Their own New World Translation breaks their own odd grammar rule again and again. 

In fact, we don’t even have to leave John 1 to see this. None of the following include “the” with theos in the original Greek:

  • John 1:6: “There came a man who was sent as a representative of God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “who was sent as a representative of a god”?

  • John 1:12-13: “he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name. And they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God.” (New World Translation)

Why isn’t this translated, “he gave authority to become a god’s children” and “they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from a god”?

  • John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him.” (New World Translation)

Why not, “No man has seen a god at any time” or “an only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side”? (I tackle the term “only-begotten” in another article.)

Many more examples exist throughout the New Testament, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation doesn’t insert an “a” before God or demote God to a lowercase status. (Also see Matthew 3:9; 6:24; Luke 1:35, 78; 2:40; Romans 1:7, 17–18; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 15:10; Philippians 2:11–13; Titus 1:1.)

Likewise, what do all of the following verses have in common? I’ll include bold to help out:

  1. “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. The book of the history of Jesus Christ…” (Matthew 1:1) (New World Translation)
  1. “… just as these were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and attendants of the message…” (Luke 1:2) (New World Translation)

All four of these verses are missing “the” in the original Greek. As I said, the definite article (“the”) doesn’t work the same in Greek as it does in English. Again, it doesn’t appear the Jehovah’s Witnesses are holding too tightly to their own grammar rule! Why is “the” being inserted into the English instead of “a” in all of these verses? Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses follow standard Greek grammar rules everywhere, it seems, but in John 1:1? If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible are going to make up a grammar rule to wiggle around a clear teaching about Jesus, they could at least follow their own made-up grammar rule consistently.

SOME FINAL ISSUES

Thirdly, John 1:1 isn’t the only passage in the New Testament to declare Jesus as God. I’ve never met a mean Jehovah’s Witness, so when they come to my door I often get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion. Despite me pointing out the above issues to him, we weren’t getting anywhere. So, I said, “Neither of us are Greek scholars, so let’s put John 1:1 aside for now and look at other verses.” The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on a single verse! 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists (as well as the apostle John)! The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation dodges the Trinity in John 1:1 but still declares two gods! Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, deny this. Their own official literature explains the wording in John 1:1 as “because of his high position among Jehovah’s creatures, the Word is referred to as ‘a god.’ Here the term ‘god’ means ‘mighty one.’” [1] Well, that seems rather arbitrary! The sharp distinction Jehovah’s Witnesses make between Jehovah as “Almighty God” and Jesus as “mighty god” isn’t biblical. See Isaiah 10:20–21 and Jeremiah 32:16–18, where “Jehovah” (Yahweh/The LORD) is called gibbor el (Hebrew), “mighty God.”

  John and almost every writer of the New Testament were first century Jews. This idea of Jesus being a lowercase “g” god would’ve been alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you weren’t. No third option existed. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses have accused traditional Christians of adopting pagan Roman ideas by believing Jesus is a divine person of the Trinity, yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ idea of Jesus being “a god” is certainly closer to Roman paganism than Judaism. For the monotheistic Jews, there were no partial gods and no near-gods. Jehovah’s Witnesses have invented a category to put Jesus in not found in the Bible. [2] By trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deep hole.

[1]  What Does the Bible Really Teach?, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, December 2014 printing.

[2] In the Bible, there are cases where “god” (theos, elohim) is a title applied to beings that aren’t the LORD (Yahweh/“Jehovah”), but they’re false gods or beings inferior to the one true God of Israel. Even by Jehovah’s Witness thinking, Jesus is a different type of “god” than these “gods.” 2 Corinthians 4:4; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 82:1, 6–7 (John 10:34–36). 

RELATED GFTM ARTICLES:

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) & the Titles of God: Almighty God, mighty god, Jehovah, Elohim

Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)