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)