When Paul went before the elders and apostles in Jerusalem to argue that the gospel should be preached to the Gentiles, it was decided that "Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: (Acts 15.24)
Because of these and other scriptures, Christians teach that when Christ came, He did away with the law of Moses, thereby freeing us from observing its commandments, statutes, and ordinances. Since circumcision was one of the laws dictated by God to Moses, and Paul preached against the need for Gentiles to be circumcised, they say this clearly shows that the gospel of Jesus Christ did away with the law of Moses. They argue that if this was not the case, then salvation would come through keeping this law. Since Paul said that salvation comes through God's grace and not through any works we do, then this is proof that we are no longer under commandment to keep the law God gave Moses.
It is for this reason that many Christian churches today no longer teach the need for keeping the Sabbath day holy since that commandment was part of the law of Moses. The same can be said for paying tithing, observing dietary laws (such as the Word of Wisdom) or other similar "works."
One Christian commentator explains it this way: "It is frequently argued that if Jesus did not `destroy' the law, then it must still be binding. Accordingly, such components as the sabbath day requirements must be operative still, along with, perhaps, numerous other elements of the Mosaic regime. This assumption is ground upon a misunderstanding of the words and intent of Matt. 5:17. Christ fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic law, which called for perfect obedience. He therefore accomplished the purpose for which it was given.
"If, however, the law of Moses bears the same relationship to men today, in terms of its binding status, as it did before Christ came, then it was not fulfilled, and Jesus failed at what he came to do. And if the law of Moses was not fulfilled by Christ, it thus remains as an obligatory legal system for today.
"And so, if one contends, on the basis of Matthew 5:17-18, that Moses' law is still binding as a legally required regime, he must take all of it - including its bloody sacrifices, annual treks to Jerusalem, purification rituals, etc." (Wayne Jackson of the Christian Courier)
Still, another Christian commentator has written: "Two factors have developed in the minds and teachings of many Christians… [One is that] many have come to think that the believer is free from the ceremonial and legal commandments [of the law of Moses] but are still under the moral commandments… [That is] the belief that the Ten Commandments are still valid today, while the other 603 commandments are not."
He then concludes, "The clear-cut teaching of the New Testament is that the Law of Moses has been rendered inoperative with the death of Messiah; in other words, the Law in its totality no longer has authority over any individual. This is evident first of all from Romans 10:4, with Paul telling us that Christ is the end of the law" (Arnold Fruchtenbaum's Messianic Bible Study)
Closely associated with the law of Moses is the necessity of having a temples because it was there that most of the laws of Moses were accomplished. Because of this, in olden times, the temple was the main focus of Jewish religious life. However, since the coming of the gospel, Paul taught, "Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (Acts 7:48). "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (1 Cor. 3:16,17). Jesus said "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. But he spake of the temple of his body" (John 2:19-21).
From these scriptures, it is said that we no longer need a temple to worship God because each of us as believers in Christ have now become a living temple where God can dwell. In fact, shortly after the death of Christ the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and has never been rebuilt. Since the temple was primarily the place where blood sacrifices were offered and given the fact that we no longer perform such acts of worship, this is further evidence that both the law of Moses and the need for temples were made obsolete with the death of Christ on the cross.
Also, under the law of Moses, Gentiles were not permitted to offer sacrifices in the temple. As such, only those who were born as an Israelite had access to salvation through a remission of their sins by means of the sacrifices offered in the temple. But, with the coming of the gospel of Christ, salvation was no longer confined to the Jews but was also given to the Gentiles as well. It is argued that if we were still under the law of Moses, then we would still be under commandment to offer blood sacrifices in the temple, which means that only the Jews would have access to God's salvation.
It is for these reasons that nearly all Christians believe that the law of Moses and the need for temples was done away with after the death of Christ.
Although this reasoning seems to be scripturally based, it presents some problems.
First of all, the foundation for the law of Moses is the Ten Commandments. If, as has already been stated, we are no longer under the obligation to keep the Sabbath day holy, then, by the same reasoning, we are no longer under the law to refrain from stealing, lying, cheating, committing adultery, taking the name of God in vain, or worshipping other Gods since these are also contained in the Ten Commandments. Yet, numerous times throughout his writings, Paul himself has instructed Christians to observe and keep each of the laws contained in the Ten Commandments. But how can that be if we are no longer under the law or required to live our life according to its "works"?
In Matthew 5:17, we read where Jesus said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." We have already seen how one Christian commentator has interpreted this to mean that the law has been made inoperative, yet another prominent Christian Commentary explained that what Jesus is telling us is that He came "not to subvert, abrogate, or annul [the law of Moses], but to establish the law and the prophets--to unfold them, to embody them in living form, and to enshrine them in the reverence, affection, and character of men." (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Jamieson, Fausett, and Brown).
These two commentators offer conflicting opinions of what Jesus meant by this statement yet, both of their interpretations present us with a problem. If Jesus came not to do away with the law of Moses but to establish it and enshrine it "in the reverence, affection, and character of men" then why does Paul say that we are no longer under the law? But, if the need to worship at the temple was not important after the death of Christ because it was part of the law of Moses that was done away with, then why did the apostles and even Paul himself continue going to the temple and observe keeping the ordinances which the law of Moses prescribed?
Consider these verses of scripture. "Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour" (Acts 3:1). "And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught" (Acts 5:21). "And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preached Jesus Christ" (Acts 5:42). "And all that believed… continued daily with one accord in the temple… praising God" (Acts 2:44-47). If Peter and John, who were two of the closest disciples of Christ, continued going to the temple on a daily basis, and all the believers in Christ continued going to the temple on a daily basis to worship and praise God, then how can it be said that the temple was no longer important in the life of a Christian? More than that, Jesus declared the temple to be His Father's house (John 2:16). Then why does Paul say that God doesn't live in a temple built by human hands?
But there is a more troubling question that arises with Paul's behavior in regard to this matter. Since he was the one who taught that we are no longer under the law, it would seem that he, above all others, would be the first to disavow the need for worship at the temple. Yet consider this incident which happened when Paul was preparing to return to Jerusalem after completing his third missionary journey:
"And Paul after this tarried there yet a good while, and then took his leave of the brethren, and sailed thence into Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila; having shorn his head in Cenchrea: for he had a vow. And he came to Ephesus, and left them there: but he himself entered into the synagogue, and reasoned with the Jews. When they desired him to tarry longer time with them, he consented not; But bade them farewell, saying, I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem: but I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus" (Acts 18:19-21).
The "feast" that Paul is referring to is that of Pentecost (Acts 20:16), which is one of the feasts prescribed in the law of Moses The question is, why did Paul say he "must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem"? Why was it imperative that he keep this feast if he felt the law of Moses had been done away with? Also, the fact that he had to go to Jerusalem to keep it means that it was a feast connected with worship in the temple.
But there is another reference in this story to the law of Moses that is often overlooked. It tells us that when Paul was in Cenchrea, he had shaved his head "for he had a vow." Bible commentators agree that this has reference to the Nazarite vow. One commentator explains it this way: "The Nazarite's head was to be shaved when either his consecration was accidentally polluted, in which case he must begin again, or when the days of his separation were fulfilled (Num. 6:9, 13:18). Those that lived in Judea were, in such a case, bound to do it at the temple: but those who lived in other countries might do it in other places." (Matthew Henry's Commentary).
Paul felt he "must by all means" go to Jerusalem to keep the upcoming feast. More than that, he had shaved his head prior to going to Jerusalem because of a vow he made in accordance with the law of Moses which was a rite connected with the temple.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, he went to see James, and the elders of the Church and told them of the success he had had among the Gentiles. Although they all rejoiced at this news, they also had another concern. There were thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who had become believers in Christ "and they [were] all zealous of the law [of Moses]." However, they had heard that Paul was teaching the Jews who lived among the Gentiles that they didn't need to "circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs" of the law of Moses. The Christian Jews in Jerusalem were quite upset about this, if these reports were true. Therefore, to show these Jews that Paul taught no such doctrine and that he himself kept the law of Moses, James and the elders of the Church said to Paul "Therefore, do this that we say to thee: We have four men which have a vow on them; Them take [to the temple], and purify thyself [along] with them, and be at charges with them, that they may shave their heads: and [in this way] all may know that those things, whereof they were informed concerning thee, are nothing; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law. (Acts 21:20-24).
We learn several important things from these verses. The first is that all of the Christian Jews who had come to Jerusalem were "zealous of the law." The Amplified Bible translates this as "and all of them are enthusiastic upholders of the [Mosaic] Law." But why were they zealous of the law if it had been made inoperative or invalid in the life of a Christian? And if they were under a mistaken idea that they still needed to follow it, then why did James and the elders of the church support and encourage them in their observance of the law?
Secondly, as we have already seen, not only did Paul come to Jerusalem to keep the feast of Pentecost in accordance with the law of Moses, and not only did he shave his head in accordance with the Nazarite vow in preparation for going to the temple to purify himself according to the law of Moses, but now James and the elders of the Church wanted him to take four other Christian Jews who had also shaved their heads and who were also going to take their vows in the temple as prescribed in the law. More than that, they placed these men in Paul's charge, meaning that he was being asked to be responsible for escorting them through the temple as they participated in fulfilling their Mosaic vows. And the reason why they wanted him to do this is so that all the Jewish Christians would clearly see that Paul kept the law of Moses himself and thereby dispel the rumors that he was teaching people not to follow the law.
When it came to defending the Christian faith, no one was more fearless than Paul. Therefore, when Paul agreed to do as James and the elders of the Church had asked of him, it wasn't because he was surrendering his cherished principles for the sake of misleading the Christian Jews living in Jerusalem about what he had been teaching others. The only reason why he agreed to their demands was because he believed in the law of Moses as much as they did and that he was teaching others to believe in it as well.
Then why did Paul seem to place so much emphasis on the inability of the law to save us, and why did the apostles give no commandment that the Gentiles "must be circumcised, and keep the law" (Acts 15:24)?
Before we look at the answer to that question we need to understand what Paul did preach. He wrote, "Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good"(Rom. 7:12). "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31). "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22).
Paul taught that the law is holy, just, and good. If that is so, then why should we want to do away with it or not follow it? Paul stated that rather than faith doing away with the law, it actually establishes, confirms, and verifies the necessity of the law. And, indeed, this is what Jesus said He Himself came to do. Paul even admits that he delights in the law. Then why would Paul say that if we are no longer under the law?
Paul explained, "But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness Werefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law" (Rom 9:31,32).
The purpose of the gospel is to help us "attain to the law of righteousness," or, in other words, it is to help us become perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect. Israel tried to follow after this law, but they were not successful. Was that the fault of the law? Quite the contrary. The reason they didn't attain to the law of righteousness was because they were not following the law for the reasons God had given it to Moses. The law of Moses is based on faith, but "they sought [to become righteous] not by faith, but as it were by [merely performing] the works of the law." In other words, to them, it was the performing of the rituals themselves that was most important, and it was that concept that Paul preached against. Constantly he reminded his readers that we are not saved simply because we go through the motions of observing the works (i.e., the rituals or ceremonies) of the law.
The purpose of the law was to bring people to Christ and the gospel of Christ is based on love of God and love of our neighbor. That's why Paul wrote "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Gal 5:14). Yet, instead of becoming a more loving people, by the time Jesus was born Israel had became so far removed in their love of God and man that they crucified the very God they worshipped.
But if circumcision is part of the law of Moses, and it is important to keep the law, then why did Paul preach against circumcision?
It should be noted that Paul didn't say that Gentiles shouldn't be circumcised. What he said was that it wasn't necessary for them to become circumcised in order to become saved, which is what some of the Jewish Christians were teaching. Paul explained that "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but [instead, what is important is] the keeping of the commandments of God"(1 Cor. 7:19). In other words, it didn't make any difference whether someone was circumcised or not. What is important is keeping God's commandments. If that is so, then why don't we keep the commandments of God as contained in the law of Moses any more, and why did Christ come to fulfill and establish the law rather than to destroy or abolish it?
To answer this question we first have to understand what was in the law Moses.
When we talk about "the law" most people think only about the Ten Commandments and the offering of an animal as a sacrifice for a person's sins, but there was much more to it than that. To begin with, there were six different kinds of offerings: The burnt offering, the meal offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, the trespass offering and the wave offering. More than that, there were four different kinds of sin offerings: one for the High Priest, one for the leaders of the nation, another one for the common man when he had intentionally committed sin and yet a different one for unintentional sins.
In addition to these offerings, there was also the law or ceremony of purification, which set forth the requirements needed to make someone clean or acceptable before God under various circumstances. There was the law or ordinance of circumcision which was required to be performed on the eighth day of a male child's life and was meant to be a covenant between God and His people. There was also the ceremony of Pidyon Ha ben which was observed when presenting a child before a priest to receive a blessing from God.
Then there were the holy feast days. These included the Passover (Lev. 23:5), the Feast of Unleavened bread (Lev. 23:6-15), the feast of Pentecost (Lev. 23:16-23), the feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah - Lev. 23:24-26), the feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur - Lev. 23:27-33), and the feast of the Tabernacles (Lev. 23:34-36).
The purpose of every one of these offerings, ordinances, and holy days was to remind Israel of God's goodness toward them, to instill within God's chosen people a feeling of gratitude for all that He had done for them, to remind them to place their trust and reliance upon Him and to teach them to be obedient to His ways. For example, as we look at the Passover we see that the purpose of it was to commemorate and remember how God had brought Israel out of the bitter bondage of Egypt into the sweetness of liberty and provided them a land flowing with milk and honey. The wave offering was held at the end of the harvest as thanks to God for the material blessings of good crops that He had provided. During the Day of Atonement the high priest would enter into the most holy place of the temple (done once a year) and offer a blood offering for the sins of the entire nation of Israel. This was to be a day of national repentance and asking for God's forgiveness. The specific manner in which the burnt offerings were to be offered up was to teach obedience (1 Sam. 15:22).
In principle these are the same concepts embodied in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It too teaches us that we are to put our trust and reliance upon God (2 Cor. 1:9; 1 Tim. 6:17), to give thanks to God for all He has given us (Eph 5:20; Phil 4:6; Col 3:17; 1 Thes. 5:18), to repent (Luke 5:32; 24:47; 2 Cor. 7:10; 2 Pet. 3:9), ask for a forgiveness of our sins (Luke 11:4; Acts 13:38; 1 John 1:9), and to obey God (Acts 5:29; Gal. 3:1; 2 Thes. 1:8; Heb. 5:9). The only difference between the law of Moses and the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) is the way in which we go about observing these same commandments, meaning that the principle remains the same but the method of keeping the principle is different.
For example, under the law of Moses people were to offer up an animal sacrifice. Under the law of Christ we are to offer up our bodies as a living, spiritual sacrifice (Rom. 12:1; 1 Pet. 2:5). The Passover was eaten to commemorate and remember how the angel of death had passed over those Israelites who had obeyed the Lord when He told them to smear the blood of a slain lamb on their doorposts. When we eat the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper we are commemorating and remembering how the angel of death will pass over us because of the blood which the Lamb of God shed in our behalf. That is why Paul refers to Jesus as our Passover (1 Cor. 5:7). Baptism is a ceremony that symbolizes having our sins washed away and making us clean, which, in principle, is very similar to the law of purification contained in the law of Moses. Many Churches also have a ceremony of having children blessed by their pastor or priest.
As for the law of circumcision, Paul explained that it isn't what's on the outside that makes someone a Jew, but rather what is on the inside. Likewise, he said it's not by being circumcised on the outside flesh of the body that a person receives praise from God, but rather, we need to be circumcised in our heart. Paul then said that we must observe the spirit of the law of circumcision instead of just following the letter of the law (Rom. 2:28,29). Thus we see that although the method has changed, Paul taught that circumcision was still very much a part of the gospel of Christ. But, instead of it being performed on the outer flesh, it is now to be done on our heart.
The reason why Paul and the other Jewish Christians observed the law of Moses was because there was nothing in those rituals that violated the law of Christ. In fact, the law of Moses was designed specifically to lead people to Christ. Thus, there was nothing wrong with a Christian keeping the law of Moses. In fact, Christ Himself faithfully kept that very law. Then why were the Gentiles exempted from observing the ordinances, ceremonies, and holy days as contained in the law of Moses?
There are two reasons. The first and most important is that nearly all the ordinances of the law centered around the temple and its priests. Thus, the temple was central to keeping the law. When people offered up a sacrifice, they brought it to the temple where the priest would perform the ceremony. When a child was circumcised, he was brought to the temple for the priest to perform the ritual. When a child was to be blessed, it was done by a priest at the temple. Even the holy days had aspects to them that included the temple and its priests.
However, the law of Moses specifically stated that Gentiles could not go inside the temple. Therefore, that precluded them from offering sacrifices, receiving blessings, or entering into covenants with God at the hands of the temple priests. During the time when Jesus and the apostles were alive, the Gentiles were permitted to enter into the precincts of the temple of Herod but they had to remain in the large courtyard that surrounded the actual temple itself. This area was referred to as the Court of the Gentiles, which was where Jesus often taught many of His lessons. It is reported that it could accommodate 210,000 people. On the eastside of this courtyard were steps that lead up to a smaller enclosed area known as the Court of the Women where Jewish women were permitted to gather. In this area was located the Treasury where people came to pay their monetary offerings. This is no doubt where Jesus saw the widowed woman who gave her two mites (Mark 12:42).
On the western side of the Court of the Women were fifteen steps that led up to yet another enclosed courtyard known as the Court of Israel where only Jewish men were permitted to enter. These men could also enter this courtyard from the Court of the Gentiles through doors located on both the north and south sides of the temple. However, the Court of Israel had its bounds because beyond this section only the priests were permitted. This area was known as the Court of the Priests and is where the sacrificial animals were clean, prepared, and burnt on a large altar that measured thirty six feet square and stood fifteen feet high. Next to this altar of sacrifice were twelve steps that led up to the actual temple itself . While the men of Israel were permitted to watch the outdoor sacrifices being performed, no one but the priests were allowed to go inside the House of the Lord and only the High Priest was permitted to go into the holiest place inside the temple.
What we seen then is that the law of Moses had very strict rules concerning who was allowed to go where. So strict were they that a sign was posted in both Greek and Latin warning that any Gentile caught trying to even go on the steps leading to the walled temple from the Court of the Gentiles was subject to being killed on the spot by the temple guards. Therefore, even if Paul had preached that the Gentiles had to keep the law of Moses, it would have been impossible for them to have done so under the Jewish form of worship.
The second, and least important reason for not requiring the Gentiles to observe the law of Moses is that many of the feast days had to do with remembering and celebrating events in Jewish history. To put this in perspective, American Christians celebrate the Fourth of July in remembrance of how God blessed our efforts to gain independence. We also observe the feast of Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in the month of November to give thanks to God for His bounteous goodness to us. Just because a Christian living in Germany, Japan, or Australia doesn't celebrate these American holidays doesn't make them any less a Christian, nor does it make an American any less of a Christian for observing these special national holidays. In the same way, Christian Gentiles had no need to remember and celebrate the various Jewish national holidays because such festivals had no meaning to them. Yet, at the same time, there was nothing inherently wrong with a Gentile participating in them.
What Paul spoke out against was the mistaken idea many Jews had that it was the very observance of the festivals, ceremonies, and rituals themselves as contained in the law of Moses that saved them. As a result of this kind of thinking there were some Christian Jews who felt that unless the Gentiles likewise kept all of these outward expressions of faith, they couldn't possibly be saved. It was to counter this kind of erroneous thinking that caused Paul to write "that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter" because "a man is justified by faith without [having to perform] the deeds (i.e., ceremonies, rituals and feasts) of the law."
Paul's message to the Christian Jews was that salvation doesn't come simply because we observe the "works" prescribed in the law of Moses. Instead, what justifies us before God is our faith, which is the same message contained in the law of Moses but was lost upon those who were more concerned with following the letter of the law than the spirit of it.
When placed in its proper, historical context it becomes easy to understand why Paul taught "ye are not under [obligation to follow the rituals of] the law."
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