I am wrestling with Romans 2 & 3 right now. When you work through these texts you cannot help but wonder what is going on in Paul’s head when it comes to the Law (Torah) and its applicability to first century Jewish Christians. Growing up I always heard that the law was done away with, gone, nailed to the cross and had nothing to say for us today. I have been questioning that for some time now but haven’t really dealt with how to put all the pieces together in my head. First of all I think our logic has gotten the best of us. We have become reductionists. We read Romans 3:21 – “ But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known…” and we think to ourselves, “If there is righteousness apart from the law, then the law is no good and is over because we know that the only things that are important are matters of salvation.” Well, who is to say that just because righteousness doesn’t come from the law makes the law any less important or means that the law was dead in the water in the first century? But Matt, Jesus did away with sacrifices once for all, Hebrews tells us that right? Of course Jesus offered a more perfect, one time sacrifice but that doesn’t mean that first century Jewish Christians checked their Judaism at the door of the house church. Peter, Paul, James and many others were Christians who took their Judaism very seriously. What do you do with these verses?
Acts 10 – Peter is still keeping Kosher law. Of course we learn in this story that God declares all food clean but in the process we learn that the law is still a priority for Peter. We see it further when he has to interact with God-fearing Gentiles and needs some confirmation from God that those interactions are “Kosher.”
Acts 18:18 – Paul takes a Nazirite vow.
Acts 21:20-26 – Paul makes a vow and pays the ritual purity fees for four men precisely because accusations arose about Paul being apostate from the law and teaching against Moses, circumcision, and the customs. Paul goes headlong into a demonstration of how the law was still important to him.
Acts 25:8 – Paul is defending himself against accusations and says, “I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.”
Some would argue (including Jacob Jervell) that Luke’s purpose in Acts is to show that Paul is not apostate from the law.
What do you do with these verses in Romans?
2:25 – “Circumcision has value if you observe the law…” Well, Peter and Paul and those in Acts 15 were Christians who were still observing at least portions of the law.
3:1 – “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way!”
There are many more verses because even the verses that are traiditionally used to show that the law was dead in the water are actually pretty poorly interpreted (the most important being Colossians 2:13-15).
One reason we have been taught the law was dead is we have been sold a bill of good that the law was all about works righteousness whereas Jesus brought grace on the scene. That is far from the truth. There was plenty of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament (Lev 4:20ff, Exo 34:6-7, Num 14:18-19, Jeremiah 36:3, Micah 7:18-19). God actually did forgive people in the Old Testament. Even in Gal 3:10 is not about obeying the whole law, rather, relying on the distinctive markers of the Jewish faith to save rather than faith in Christ).
When you put the pieces together, as best I can tell, there were still law practicing Jewish Christians in the first century (including James, Peter, and Paul) who still fully relied on Jesus Christ for their righteousness. Sure no more sacrifice and sure no more clean and unclean and sure the Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be “in” but that doesn’t mean that the law was tossed to the side once they heard about Jesus Christ. Notice Acts 21:20-22 “Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21 They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22 What shall we do?” There were Jews who believed in Jesus and yet still valued circumcision and the teachings of Moses (which were…the Law/Torah).
The key verse in all of this is 1 Cor 9:22 – Paul was willing to become all things to all men to win some. We get confused when Paul is writing to Gentiles it makes the law seem like it is in a negative light and so we downplay the law. Paul is trying to assure them that they don’t have to turn to fully obey the law and be circumcised to be “in.” They need Christ. But that doesn’t mean that the law was not valued and still had some value for early Jewish Christians.