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Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Part 2

June 7th, 2009 by Matt

As I concluded in Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Part I , the Apostles rejected the claim that, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”[1] Following Peters position, they decide that Gentiles do not have to follow the Mosaic Law; instead it is affirmed,

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.

Here the Apostles state that gentiles do not have to follow the Mosaic law; however, they are required to abstain from certain practices such as sexual immorality, from idolatry, blood laws and the meat of strangled animals. I went on to note the rationale for this; it is claimed that Gentiles can be required to abstain from these practices because, “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”[2] In other words, because the gentiles have heard Moses preached they know they have a duty to abstain from these practices. If a gentile is familiar with Moses then he or she will know that there are some commandments that are binding on him or her, even if he or she does not himself or herself have to follow the law in its entirety.

In approaching this issue two hermeneutical points are worth noting. The first is articulated by Richard Mouw,

We must insist that not all commandments which are found in the bible are to be obeyed by contemporary Christian’s. For example, God commanded Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldees, and commanded Jonah to preach in Nineveh; it would be silly to suppose that it is part of every Christian’s duty to obey these commands.[3]

We are only required to obey those commands recorded in scripture that are addressed to us. Scripture records these commands as being addressed to Abram and Jonah, as such these commands were addressed to them and not to anyone else.

The second point is that not all commands in the Mosaic law are addressed to non-Jews. Alan Donagan notes, “While the whole Torah does not purport to be binding on all mankind, part of it does. Even in biblical times, the Jews had come to recognise those Gentiles who recognised that part of the Mosaic Halachah which applies to Gentiles and Jews alike.”[4] Jewish exegesis distinguishes between what the Rabbis called the Noahide law the Mosaic law. The former are the commands God addresses to all human kind, Jew and gentile alike. Jewish tradition teaches that these laws were given first, during the time of Adam, to all Adam’s descendants and then again to Noah. The Mosaic law, on the other hand, is a covenant between Jews and God. However, as the Jews are a subset of all people, many of the Noahide laws are repeated in the Mosaic law although Israel is given a body of other laws which are binding on them in virtue of their special relationship to God. I think the exegetical basis for this distinction is sound; I will briefly cite three lines of evidence for it.

First, the Mosaic law begins, prior to the giving of the law, with the narrative in Genesis which implicitly teaches that there are commands that are binding on both Jews and non-Jews. In Genesis 1:28-29, for example, all human beings are permitted to eat vegetables. Genesis 2:24, as interpreted by Jesus and Paul, condemn divorce and promiscuity. In Genesis 4, Cain is warned about his desire to sin and later condemned for committing murder. The proto-history of the flood has all human beings being condemned for sexual immorality and violence. In Genesis 9, Noah and his descendants (who in the narrative are the entire human race) are permitted to eat any animals but forbidden from committing murder and are also commanded to punish those who do, further Ham, a gentile, is condemned for uncovering his fathers nakedness. The same picture is seen in the story of Dinah in Genesis 34 where pre-marital sex on the part of gentiles is condemned. The abduction of Sarah by Egyptian kings makes it clear that God requires gentiles not to commit adultery and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah condemns a mixture of rape, sodomy and inhospitable treatment of strangers by gentiles. Hence, when Moses delivers the law at Sinai it has already been taught that many of the commandments he elaborates on were already binding on Gentiles.

Second, the oracles against gentile nations entail the same thing. Amos, Ezekiel, Nahum, Isaiah and Job all condemn gentile nations for violating standards laid down in the Mosaic law. This only makes sense if some of the commandments in the Mosaic law are actually binding on gentile nations.

Third, a careful exegesis of the Torah shows that something like the distinction between Noahide and Mosaic commandments is implicit in it. Take the issue that sparked of the Council of Jerusalem, the kosher food laws. These laws occur in the 14th chapter of Deuteronomy. They begin with, “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession. Do not eat any detestable thing.” This is followed by a list of animals declared unclean to eat then, immediately after prohibiting the eating of such animals, the text states, “You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God.” The text, then, is quite clear; these kinds of animals can be sold to gentiles and gentiles may eat them; the Jews, however, are to refrain from eating them because of the special covenant relationship they have with God, “out of all the peoples on the face of the earth … ” If one reads the earlier sections of the Pentateuch, such as Genesis 9, it teaches that gentiles have been permitted by God to eat any animal. Hence, the Kosher laws are not addressed to gentiles and do not expound a command that God had given to all human beings prior to Sinai.

This is in stark contrast to the laws laid down in Leviticus 18. This pericope opens with God telling Moses “speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.” God then issued a series of commands to refrain from certain sexual practices such as incest (v 6-16), bigamy (v 18), homosexual conduct (v 22), adultery (v 20), bestiality (v 23) as well as a command to refrain from infant sacrifice (v 21). God then goes on to state,

“Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.

Here Israel are commanded to refrain from various practices that gentiles engage in and the reason given is that it is wrong for gentiles to do such things. God explicitly states that he condemned gentiles who did these things prior to the giving of the Mosaic law and that Israel was simply being held to the same standard as gentiles. The conclusion is that no one is to engage in these practices whether a Jew (“native”) or a gentile (“aliens living among you”).

Markus Bockmuehl calls laws, like Leviticus 18, laws of the “gerim” or “resident alien.”[5] These are laws in the Torah relating to gentiles living in Israel. Bockmuehl gives two broad categories of such laws, “The first extend social welfare rights to the gerim,” such things as a “fair trial,” protection from being overworked and support mechanisms for the disadvantaged, all of which are granted to gerim or resident aliens. The second are, “positive commands applying to the gerim along with the rest of Isreal.”[6] Bockmuehl notes several examples including various laws about idolatry, laws relating to homicide and assault, laws relating to sexual immorality, laws relating to blasphemy and many others. The paradigm of resident alien laws comes chiefly in Leviticus 17-20. These laws were the basis for the distinction Donagan makes between between laws that applied to gentiles and those that applied to Jews only.

I think this distinction explains the aforementioned basis in Acts 15. Conzelman notes that the instructions given to the gentiles by the Apostles Council in Acts 15 appear to be a fairly concise summary of the laws of the resident alien in Leviticus 17-20.[7] Leviticus 17:1-9 contains prohibitions on idolatrous slaughter. Acts 15 instructs the gentiles to, “abstain from food polluted by idols.” Leviticus 17:10-14 contains laws relating to the consumption of blood.” The Apostles instruct the gentiles to abstain “from blood;” Leviticus 17:15-16 contains laws relating to the eating of animals not properly bled. The Apostles instructed the Gentiles to abstain from the meat of strangled animals.” Leviticus 18 condemns various forms of sexual immorality; Acts 15 has the gentiles instructed to “abstain .. from sexual immorality.” This observation also explains the rationale at the end, “The Gentiles were not required to follow the law of Moses, but they were required to follow the requirements God has laid on all people.” This is summarised in the resident alien laws and the Gentiles can be reasonably expected to know these laws because they are found in the law of Moses and “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

This distinction also explains how the stance of the Apostles is consistent with that of Jesus. The Apostles are not abolishing the law or telling others to break them. The Gentiles are instructed to keep those parts of the Mosaic law that apply to them. They are simply recognising that the Mosaic law is not binding on gentiles, something the Mosaic law itself teaches. It also addresses the charge of selectivity made by Mohr.

Mohr asks, “do ministers who cite what they take to be condemnations of homosexuality in Leviticus maintain in their lives all the hygienic and dietary laws of Leviticus”[8] and concludes, “those who regularly cite the Bible to condemn an activity like homosexuality do so by reading it selectively.”[9] This simply shows a lack of understanding of both the law and the new testament teaching on it. As I noted, the dietary laws laid down in the Mosaic law command Jews to abstain from various foods, they do not command gentiles to do this. The laws on sexual immorality, however, clearly apply to both Jews and gentiles. If Mohr wants to see selective exegesis, perhaps an examination of contemporary “liberal” Christians who dismiss the laws on homosexuality as non-applicable but oddly consider the laws against incest, bestiality, adultery and human sacrifice to be binding despite the fact that they occur in the exact same context.

[1] Acts 15:5 NIV.
[2] Acts 15:21.
[3] Richard Mouw “Biblical Revelation and Medical Decisions” in Stephen E Lammers and Allen Verhey On Moral Medicine (Grand Rapids MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 56.
[4] Alan Donagan The Theory of Morality (Chicago: Chicago University press. 1979) 4-5
[5] Marcus Bockmuehl Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Baker Academic, 2000) 153.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Hans Conzelman Acts of the Apostles Vol 2 The International Critical Commentary (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1998) 734.
[8] Richard Mohr “Gay Basics: Some Questions, Facts, and Values” in Morality in Practice ed James Sterba (Wadsworth).
[9] Ibid.

RELATED POSTS:
Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Part I

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8 responses so far ↓

  • Thanks Matt

    Some interesting and thoughtful points.

  • Starting with where we agree. Clearly parts of the Mosaic Law are applicable, in that they reflect God's character. Although this does not mean we are to obey the Law, or part of the Law.

    Going with your Moses is a type of Christ can suggest that Jesus is the antitype and the greater reality. We see this in Hebrews for example. Jesus introduces a new "Law" that is a new heart controlled by the Spirit having nailed the Mosaic Law to the cross. We obey the Spirit which may encompass parts of the Mosiac Law (as he was the author of it), though he goes further than the Law showing us what God really intended in Moses. Eg. murder laws were to cover hatred. And that we are unable to keep the Law. And that the Law really pointed to faith.

    Note that Paul states the Law is for lawbreakers, not for the just.

    Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy)

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  • So I think that the command to the Gentiles from council had less to do with what was expected of the Gentiles, and everything to do with not offending the Jews.

    It was proposed not just to circumcise the Gentiles, but to make them keep the Law of Moses.

    But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

    And the ensuing debate was about _not_ giving them the burden they couldn't keep. So they didn't make them get circumcised or demand they keep the Law or part (non ceremonial) or the Law. Rather they gave them freedom.

    However there is a caveat to the freedom for the sake of the lack of Jewish freedom. Moses had been preached there which meant there were many Jews. Eating blood would offend Jews so they were to avoid it.

    We know this must be the case at least for stuff polluted by idols. This is because Paul tells us that eating idol polluted food is okay in Romans, unless it offends others. Thus the prohibition in Acts must be not be intrinsic, but for some other reason, ie. not offending the "Jewish" Christians.

    Paul does the same later when he circumcises Timothy. In no uncertain terms he condemns those who state that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Yet dispite these harsh words, he is happy to circumcise Timothy (who was half Jewish) not for salvation issues, but for the sake of not causing unnecessary offence.

    We can't keep the Law. The Jews failed. Only Jesus succeeded. And all my righteousness is tied up in his success.

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  • Clearly parts of the Mosaic Law are applicable, in that they reflect God's character. Although this does not mean we are to obey the Law, or part of the Law.

    This sounds like a contradiction; one is not required to obey the law or part of the law. However, part of the law is applicable. I assume by applicable one must at least mean that one is required to obey it? ( if not it clearly does not apply to you.

    Moreover if one is not required to obey any part of the law then one is not required to refrain from murder, rape, theft, adultery as these requirements are all part of the law. Clearly no Christian really believes this. Despite what they say.

    Going with your Moses is a type of Christ can suggest that Jesus is the antitype and the greater reality. We see this in Hebrews for example. Jesus introduces a new "Law" that is a new heart controlled by the Spirit having nailed the Mosaic Law to the cross.

    The problem is Jesus in the sermon on the mount denied he was replacing the Mosaic law, as I pointed out in my previous post. Moreover the language of the spirit controlling the heart actually comes from old testament prophecies where God tells Israel he will write the law(of Moses) on their hearts.

    obey the Spirit which may encompass parts of the Mosiac Law (as he was the author of it), though he goes further than the Law showing us what God really intended in Moses. Eg. murder laws were to cover hatred.

    Again this seems incoherent, you stated we are not required to obey part of the law, but here you say we obey the spirit which encompasses part of the law which amounts to obeying part of the law.

    Moreover you talk about going further than the law by showing us what God really intended in Moses Moses however is the lawgiver, if Moses intended something then this is the intention of the law and hence one is not going further one is simply interpreting it correctly. Moreover its something of a myth to say that the Mosaic law did not condemn lust or hatred it actually does in several places.

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  • i>So I think that the command to the Gentiles from council had less to do with what was expected of the Gentiles, and everything to do with not offending the Jews.

    So the only reason the Gentiles were told to refrain from sexual immorality was that it “offended jews” ???. It was not something Gentiles are actually expected to do. Again Christians do not really think this.

    It was proposed not just to circumcise the Gentiles, but to make them keep the Law of Moses.
    But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
    And the ensuing debate was about _not_ giving them the burden they couldn't keep. So they didn't make them get circumcised or demand they keep the Law or part (non ceremonial) or the Law. Rather they gave them freedom.

    This does not follow, the suggestion was that Gentiles are required to be circumcised and keep the (whole) law of Moses, the apostles reject this and note that even the jews were not able to bear this burden ( that of keeping the whole law) all that follows from this that Gentiles are not required to follow the entire Mosaic law and are free from the requirement to do this. It’s a fallacy to infer that because one is not required to keep the whole it follows one is not required to keep the parts

    I doubt anyone believed that Gentiles are not required to follow any part of the law, what about the parts telling people to not murder or rape for example. Were the Apostles saying this was Ok, clearly not.

    However there is a caveat to the freedom for the sake of the lack of Jewish freedom. Moses had been preached there which meant there were many Jews. Eating blood would offend Jews so they were to avoid it. Actually Jewish tradition maintains its wrong for Jews and Gentiles to eat blood and this is what is taught in Genesis 9 where Noah and his descendants ( gentiles) are told not to do this, the same text gives them permission to eat any meat at all even “unclean meat” and to enforce capital punishment for murder. One cannot interpret the latter half of this passage as applying to gentiles and not the former.

    Moreover as noted, if the reasons for these prohibitions is simply to avoid offending jews then the conclusion must be that the only reason gentiles should refrain from sexual immorality is to avoid offending jews.

    We know this must be the case at least for stuff polluted by idols. This is because Paul tells us that eating idol polluted food is okay in Romans, unless it offends others. Thus the prohibition in Acts must be not be intrinsic, but for some other reason, ie. not offending the "Jewish" Christians. Actually I am inclined to interpret Paul’s position as more nuanced than this, in Corinthans he condemns eating food sacrificed to idols as idolatry in certain contexts ( 1 Cor 10:14-22) but not when its food that is sold in the market place (1 cor 10:25)

    Paul does the same later when he circumcises Timothy. In no uncertain terms he condemns those who state that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Yet dispite these harsh words, he is happy to circumcise Timothy (who was half Jewish) not for salvation issues, but for the sake of not causing unnecessary offence.

    This does not effect anything I said, yes I agree Gentiles are not required to be circumcised, I also agree that there might be other reasons ( other than being required) that one might do this any way. Nothing I said suggested otherwise.
    We can't keep the Law. The Jews failed. Only Jesus succeeded. And all my righteousness is tied up in his success. But I was not saying one can keep the law perfectly, nor was I saying that my righteousness is not tied up in Christ. What I deny is that these facts mean I am not required to obey those commandments of the Mosaic law which expound commands God has issued to all people. […]

  • So I think that the command to the Gentiles from council had less to do with what was expected of the Gentiles, and everything to do with not offending the Jews.

    So the only reason the Gentiles were told to refrain from sexual immorality was that it “offended jews” ???. It was not something Gentiles are actually expected to do. Again Christians do not really think this.

    It was proposed not just to circumcise the Gentiles, but to make them keep the Law of Moses.
    But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
    And the ensuing debate was about _not_ giving them the burden they couldn't keep. So they didn't make them get circumcised or demand they keep the Law or part (non ceremonial) or the Law. Rather they gave them freedom.

    This does not follow, the suggestion was that Gentiles are required to be circumcised and keep the (whole) law of Moses, the apostles reject this and note that even the jews were not able to bear this burden ( that of keeping the whole law) all that follows from this that Gentiles are not required to follow the entire Mosaic law and are free from the requirement to do this. It’s a fallacy to infer that because one is not required to keep the whole it follows one is not required to keep the parts

    I doubt anyone believed that Gentiles are not required to follow any part of the law, what about the parts telling people to not murder or rape for example. Were the Apostles saying this was Ok, clearly not.

    However there is a caveat to the freedom for the sake of the lack of Jewish freedom. Moses had been preached there which meant there were many Jews. Eating blood would offend Jews so they were to avoid it. Actually Jewish tradition maintains its wrong for Jews and Gentiles to eat blood and this is what is taught in Genesis 9 where Noah and his descendants ( gentiles) are told not to do this, the same text gives them permission to eat any meat at all even “unclean meat” and to enforce capital punishment for murder. One cannot interpret the latter half of this passage as applying to gentiles and not the former.

    Moreover as noted, if the reasons for these prohibitions is simply to avoid offending jews then the conclusion must be that the only reason gentiles should refrain from sexual immorality is to avoid offending jews.

    We know this must be the case at least for stuff polluted by idols. This is because Paul tells us that eating idol polluted food is okay in Romans, unless it offends others. Thus the prohibition in Acts must be not be intrinsic, but for some other reason, ie. not offending the "Jewish" Christians. Actually I am inclined to interpret Paul’s position as more nuanced than this, in Corinthans he condemns eating food sacrificed to idols as idolatry in certain contexts ( 1 Cor 10:14-22) but not when its food that is sold in the market place (1 cor 10:25)

    Paul does the same later when he circumcises Timothy. In no uncertain terms he condemns those who state that circumcision is necessary for salvation. Yet dispite these harsh words, he is happy to circumcise Timothy (who was half Jewish) not for salvation issues, but for the sake of not causing unnecessary offence.

    This does not effect anything I said, yes I agree Gentiles are not required to be circumcised, I also agree that there might be other reasons ( other than being required) that one might do this any way. Nothing I said suggested otherwise.
    We can't keep the Law. The Jews failed. Only Jesus succeeded. And all my righteousness is tied up in his success. But I was not saying one can keep the law perfectly, nor was I saying that my righteousness is not tied up in Christ. What I deny is that these facts mean I am not required to obey those commandments of the Mosaic law which expound commands God has issued to all […]

  • Thanks Matt. I suspected you might go the sexual immorality line and wondered if I should have pre-empted it. I don't think that the letter was systematic like say some of the Law. It touches on some issues. Like when elsewhere it Paul is reminded to remember the poor. I see the sexual immorality command like that, a reminder that freedom in Christ does not allow them to be sexually immoral, like say the Corinthians who abused such freedom (especially in the Gentile context where idolatry and sexual immorality were entwined). That being said, others suggest that the term is more about specific marriage prohibitions from Leviticus, in which case this would be similar to the other prohibitions for the sake of the Jews.

    But the textual context suggests that this was for Jewish sensibilities. If these are commands for Gentiles then it does not matter whether they are aware of them or not, or whether the Jews had preached or not. If your position is correct then the reasoning is that this is God's requirement for Gentiles as given say in Moses; Paul elsewhere appeals to Adam and Eve for defence of the truth of his comments. And if other laws are required, why not mention them? There is no mention in the letter not to murder, to build parapets, to ….

    However if the Gentiles were in fact allowed to eat meat of strangled animals, then a prohibition for the sake of the Jews makes sense.

    Ie.

    1. If the Gentiles were intrinsically not to eat blood, then appeal can (and should) be made to "God's Law", or Noahite Law, or Mosaic Law.

    2. If the Gentiles can intrinsically eat blood but shouldn't for the sake of Jewish sensibilities, then appeal can be made to not offending others.

    In the Acts passage we have both the refusal to burden with Mosaic Law (suggesting 1 is not true) and the appeal to previous preaching concerning Moses (suggesting 2 is true).

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  • Rather than respond to the several paragraphs individually, I will try and explain my view more fully.

    I think that the Mosiac Law no longer holds for Christians (and this includes the 10 commandments and Noahite Law). That is I don't think we should learn the Law and try and obey it. I think that Christians appealing to the Law should be cautious.

    However I think that the Spirit who dwells in Christians authored the Mosaic Law. So the Mosaic Law is therefore consistent with God's requirements for us.

    However the way of Christians is not to follow rules, it is to follow Christ. And the indwelling of the Spirit will never lead us to do things that offend God.

    The outcome of this is that our behaviour will not break many of the Mosaic Laws, but this is not why we do it, or how we do it.

    I realise that hearts of flesh is OT, but I see it as God telling of how things are to become, and that is the NT.

    And I am not saying that the Mosaic Law doesn't mention things like loving and not hating. But I was referring to Jesus' comments that one cannot not appeal to obeying the law not to murder if they haven't murdered, but have hated. If they have hated Jesus states they have in fact broken the law of do not murder. It may not be as great an offence as murder, but it is still breaking that law in its essence.

    The reason for this my view is that it is not obeying the specifics of the Law that saves, and it never was. The Law was to show people that they are completely unable to keep it. Salvation is and was always by faith (which for the Jews was tied up in sacrifice).

    So to tell Gentiles to obey any of the Mosaic Law seems inconsistent with the message of salvation. But to tell them to refrain from behaviour for the sake of another is not about obeying Law, it is about love.

    You may say does that mean Christians can get drunk, murder, steal or all kinds of other things. No. But the radicalness of the message means that the abuse of grace is a risk. While abuse of grace offends God, so does trying to earn one's salvation. The appeal not to steal is not because the Law forbids it, but because we belong to Christ and try to align our lives with his.

    *Does Jesus approve of you taking what belongs to others?
    *Does such behaviour bring honour or shame to Christ?
    *Do you think stealing is showing love toward those you steal from?
    *Why not instead work and earn money so that you can help others in need?
    (Ephesians 4:28)

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